Parshat Noach, 2009
As you just heard from Ruth Katzner, October is Domestic Violence Awareness month in the US and our CBI taskforce decided to do a d’var Torah to help raise awareness of this difficult issue in our own Jewish community.
I was assigned Parshat Noach and wondered how I would make this work.
This is a parsha with lots of measuring and building going on. It begins with the story of Noach and the command to build the ark, collect all the animals … and ends with the dispersion of the people after the skyscraper debacle of the Tower of Babel. Not too obviously promising for my theme…
But something did catch my eye and got me started in my exploration. The rabbis also noted this curious detail.
- God commands that Noah, his sons, his wife, and his sons’ wives should go into the ark that Noach is to build (Gen 6:18).
- Two more times (Gen 7:7; 7:13) we are told that Noah, his sons, his wife and his sons’ wives enter the ark.
- One year later God tells them to go forth out of the ark…but this time it is: Noach, his wife, his sons and his sons’ wives. (Gen 8:16)Why the change of order?
Textual inconsistencies are what Bible commentators live for! This is, after all, how midrash is created… to explain the quirky, the alternate spelling, the missing person, and to build meaning out of sometimes obscure stuff.
- The animals entered the ark as commanded two by two, male and female of each species.
- But the humans are told to enter first males and then the females. Not as couples.
- One year later there has been, miraculously, no procreation among the humans nor the animals.
- The change of word order is explained by Rashi to mean… that there was sexual abstinence during the entire time they were in the ark.
- The humans were so busy feeding the animals day and night that there was no time for sleep or sex.
- That the animals did not procreate was a miracle, although one rabbinic reading suggests that the animals were also gender separated during the entire year. This would, of course, remove the need for miracles!
A year of abstinence does not explain to me why they leave the ark as couples… two by two. What happened during this terribly confining year on the ark, during which they became the only humans in the world?
- There is a parallel story of destruction and a select few survivors. And that is: Lot and the destruction of Sodom.
- Both Lot and Noach are chosen by God to survive the destruction of their extremely corrupt worlds. Both found comfort in wine and oblivion.
Leaving Lot’s unfortunate daughters and Noach’s strapping sons aside for now… let’s focus on Mrs. Lot and Mrs. Noach—two women with no names.
- The rabbis give them names but they don’t work at all for me.
- What are they doing while Noach and Lot get directions from God or angels and are busy building or negotiating?
- What would you be doing if you were told that the world or your city was going to be destroyed?
- When we move to new places or into new relationships, what gets left behind and what do we choose to take along?
Lot and his family are repeatedly told not to look back at Sodom being destroyed. Mrs. Lot can’t help herself and she gets turned into a pillar of salt. Sodom was supposedly a disgusting, corrupt place and yet she looks back. What did she hope to see? What did she leave behind that she longed for?
Noach’s ark was built with no windows—only a sky light. They were not going to be able to see the destruction of all they had known, the drowning death of their neighbors, of the animals, the submerging of their villages.
They are spared the horror.
So what do we:
- Take along: Memories, photos, a culture, perhaps a story of who we are.
- Leave behind: material stuff, burdens, obligations, neighbors, some friends, a culture, a name perhaps.
- And the stuff that comes along even when we try to discard it? Personality, shticks, relationship issues, and memories
Getting back to my question of rank and gender order…
Besides feeding the animals, what did Noach and Mrs. Noach do during that year together? Something happened or changed… that is for sure.
Was it like a retreat where husband and wife could focus on each other without the grotesque distraction of the corrupt world around them?
Or did they fall in love again after years of dull routine?
Was it an ‘age’ thing, where Noach and his wife had more in common with each other than he with his sons, and she with her daughters-in-law? The younger folk get to walk out of the ark as couples, too.
Sometimes home is a retreat, a refuge… but sometimes it isn’t… it can be a prison.
What was the ark?
The ark year seems to have been a good thing for Mr. & Mrs. Noach. They walked out hand-in-hand, knowing they had been saved by God to care for the new world. Noach sacrificed to God and planted the first-ever vineyard. And then became drunk…and well, that’s another story and a painful one, too.
I never understood why God didn’t just recreate humans from earth again instead of saving a few flawed ones.
We never hear of Mrs. Noach again. The story reverts to the male descendants. In fact why did we need Mrs. Noach at all? The only reason I can see is that everyone must have his or her mate on the ark. And there is a midrash on that, too.
One midrash says that Deceit wanted to get on the ark but was rejected because he had no mate. He invited Want to be his mate. They struck a deal for eternity: Whatever Deceit acquires, Want takes away. Together they got on board and are still with us.
Let us look at 3 more couples.
1. Sarah is barren but Abraham never prays to God for her. He will intercede on behalf of many people but not for his wife. Indeed God’s promise of countless descendants makes no sense if Sarah is to remain barren.
He endangers Sarah on their visit to Egypt by insisting she pretend to be his sister lest Pharaoh kill him to get her for himself. At 65 she must have made quite an impression! And Avraham repeats the subterfuge with Abimelech.
What does one say about such a relationship?
Unlike Mrs. Noach, Sarah is essential to the story. Although Avraham has his son Ishmael, God’s covenantal promise is through Sarah, not Hagar. -Avraham seems somewhat incidental. God tells him to listen to Sarah’s words. This is a partnership of equals, who have traveled a long way together and together have brought followers to their God. They are alienated from their past together. They are barren together. And then they are fruitful. It is a strange and poignant balance.
Isaac is born to them after the physical covenant is made with Avraham.
By the way, Sarah also disappears from the story after the Akeda. Midrashim abound! Isaac feels his mother’s loss profoundly; her tent awaits Isaac’s bride.
2. Rebecca is also barren, but Isaac “entreats the Lord for his wife” (Gen. 25:21) and she conceives. This is an arranged marriage that is a story of love—if not exactly a love-story. Rebecca eagerly leaves her home to be with this distant cousin. When she and Avraham’s servant Eliezer approach Isaac after the long journey, she asks, Who is that man?
Rashi says: She saw him majestic and she was dumbfounded in his presence.
Aviva Zornberg writes that what Rebecca sees in Isaac is “the vital anguish at the heart of his prayers.” She comes from a different place, “the sunlit world of hesed (loving-kindness)” and although they are a monogamous couple, they never quite understand each other.
3. Jacob and Rachel are also cousins. He does not pray for his barren wife although she pleads with him: Give me children or else I die.
He responds: Am I in God’s stead who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb?
How can he speak to her this way? This is the woman he adores, for whom he has worked 14 years. Rachel does as Sarah did and offers Jacob her handmaiden Bilha. Rachel manages to conceive after she prays for herself.
Let’s go back to my second theme: What did each take along or leave behind?
- Abraham and Sarah left everything behind to start anew together as equal partners.
- Isaac has been stripped of everything except the tremendous burden of his inheritance. He waits for someone or something to complete him.
- Rebecca jumped at the chance to leave her parents and follow the servant who brought so many gifts. Was this gracious and out-going woman striking out on her own, or running away from her difficult family?
- Jacob leaves home with nothing except the stolen blessing from his father. But he carries with him great fear of Esau’s vengeance.
- What caused Rachel to steal her father’s gods when they leave the only home she has ever known?
When or how do we make ourselves ready for important journeys—real or metaphoric?
What do we need to take with us and what are we willing to leave behind?
When we go, are we primarily moving away from something or toward something?
How to let go, in order to be able to take hold…
We find ourselves in these stories, in these mythic individuals, and their predicaments. The information we have in the Torah about couples is sparse and terse. What we know about the people in our families and in our community is often also sparse and terse and simply hard to really understand.
And what about ourselves?
Are we able to look at our own journeys and choices in a dispassionate and creative way? Can we fill in the details with midrash to help us continue our journeys, or to help us change the journey?
I’ll end with a Midrash
Now Mrs. Noach was past child-bearing age when the world began anew. Her sons had married fine women and they started their respective families. But Noach was hard to talk to after the flood.
During the year on the ark, they had worked hard and always together.
And they had talked while they worked. They talked of their hopes for the future, for their future grandchildren.
They remembered together their youthful days when they worked the land and struggled to feed the growing boys.
But now, Noach was quiet and kept to himself. He planted a vineyard by himself; a whole vineyard! Who ever heard of such a thing? He harvested the grapes and made wine and nearly every night he drank himself into oblivion. This was not the man she had loved. She did not understand him.
She had left the ark full of hope and now she was more alone than ever. The Lord blessed Noach and her sons and told them to multiply. She was past all that and wondered what exactly God had in mind for her.
And so one day, Mrs. Noach took a walk and kept on going. She never looked back… and no one ever came looking for her. One day, a dove circled overhead and alighted on a nearby branch. The dove seemed to be cooing… something about Noach… that he was unwell and had cursed their youngest son…and then it flew away.
Mrs. Noach was not sure she had understood, but found herself humming softly as she walked, and after awhile, as the path got easier, her voice became full and her singing filled the air.