Parshat Noach

A Dvar Torah by Kymn Goodman

 

My Bat Mitzvah parsha, part, is Noach, Noach being the Hebrew form of Noah. I say "my" parsha because it does feel like this is the parsha that I was meant to study. I didn't know why when I began.  And I wasn't aware of all the connections to my own life there were in this parsha.  At first I thought I would focus on parshat Noah simply because this Shabbat was available and pretty close to my birthday, both in the secular and the Hebrew calenders.  However, more & more, I came to realize that simple was not my life, nor my parsha. My parsha is Noah because there were things in Noah that I needed to learn.  There were parts of Noah that I could relate to. And, perhaps, there was something in the story of Noah that I could teach.

 

I think Noah is one of the most recognizable characters in all the Torah. When I say Noah, people automatically think "the ark". This happened many times to me during this year leading up to today.  There are an infinite amount of books, songs, plays, movies, etc. based on the story of Noah. I will briefly summarize what the Torah actually says about parshat Noach, then fill in some of the blanks with ideas & speculations. I have a whole lot of questions that have arisen from my studies and we'll explore some of them. After that, I'll show how this parsha relates to my own life.

 

Parshat Noach begins by describing Noah as a righteous man who walked with God. The rest of society had become corrupt, displeasing God and giving God reason to eradicate all human life, except Noah & his family. God informs Noah of the impending flood & gives him exact directions on how to build the ark. God describes how Noah is to take 2 of every animal, 1 male, and 1 female, into the ark. Man, that's got to be crowded!  After 120 years, the ark is complete. Noah, his wife, their 3 sons Shem, Ham & Japheth, their wives, and all the animals enter the ark. It rains for 40 days & 40 nights. The waters continue to surge and strengthen for months.  All that moved on the earth is destroyed. Then God remembers Noah and the beasts that were with him on the ark and causes a spirit to pass over the earth, after which the waters subside & recede. After about a year, they disembark. God establishes a covenant between God and every living being on the earth, with a rainbow from a cloud to remember "never again". To be remembered from generation to generation. Noah goes back to tending the land. He plants a vineyard & gets drunk, during which time the Torah suggests there may have been incest between him and his son Ham. Then the Tower of Babel is introduced, said to have been built with its top in Heaven by people wanting to make a name for themselves. God confuses their language & disperses them. More lists of the generations, ending with the birth of Abraham, who grows up and takes a wife, Sarah. This is followed by next week's parsha Lech Lecha.

 

Some pieces of the story that have been suggested in rabbinic Midrash but are not in the Torah are these. Noah's wife's name is Naamah, not Joan of Arc. She is devoted to Noah, and works alongside him. She bears Shem, the first of their 3 sons, 20 years after they begin construction of the ark. It is suggested that this way their sons were born into a family already working to fulfill the Divine request and would help right alongside their parents. The ultimate family project! Naamah, meaning pleasantness, is referred to as a musical woman, who helps to calm the animals on the ark with her drumming. The beginnings of music therapy.

 

This parsha raised more questions for me than answers, which I think I have figured out is the reason to study the Torah. There are so many practical questions about the building of the ark and assembling the animals. Like, did Noah work alone on the ark?  Did he hire workers? Could anyone really do this work alone? If it takes a village to raise a child, wouldn't it take at least a village to raise the roof on an ark?

What an enormous amount of work. Can't you just hear Naamah calling from the rafters as the animals were ushered in,  "Wipe your feet! I just washed that floor!"  They are told by God to harvest all the fields and bring food into the ark. We're talking a lot of animals to feed, and 8 Jewish people. How could there possibly have been enough food? What about snacks?

 

The ethical questions are even more complex. Did Noah try to convince God to have mercy on the earth? This is a huge question with much discussion around it, which I'll leave for another dvar.

 

It brings to mind a quote of Reb Hillel the Elder who lived about 30 BCE.  He said, "If I am not for myself, who will be for me?  If I am only for myself, what am I?  And if not now, when?" Who Was for Noah? I guess it was God, since God chose Noah to live, however it came with such a huge responsibility to bear.  Was Noah, I wondered, for himself only? Traditional commentaries suggest that Noah was a moral & principled man, self-exiled with his wife from a corrupt and vulgar society that was devoid of the Divine's Presence. He tried desperately to convince people to do teshuvah, repentance, and gain God's favour, but with little success.  Because he had been telling stories of impending doom for at least 120 years, no one took him seriously. If not now, when? Noah was almost 500 years old when God asked him to start building the ark. Which is another good reason to stay fit, because you never know when God is going to ask you to build something really big. After the rainbow, the Torah says Noah plants a vineyard and gets drunk. It makes sense that Noah would want to get back to the land, start clearing away the debris and carcasses from the massive graveyard the earth had become, and plant crops. So what does he plant first? Grapes for wine! Elie Weisel, a great writer and Holocaust survivor himself, makes a fascinating point. He calls Noah the first survivor, and that he experienced survivor's guilt, having been chosen by God to save himself & his family when all his neighbors perished. The survivor's guilt & the trauma of the ordeal were too much for him.  Noah turns to alcohol to help him cope.

 

Then there are the endless spiritual questions, to ponder over & over again. Was God behaving badly? Where was the God of Compassion? From the beauty of Creation to a total wave of destruction in a mere 10 generations, in just one chapter following the other. That's a big leap. Is it possible that God had been disheartened with humankind back since when Adam & Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil? Why now, what made God decide to wipe out all living things at this time? Why did God save Noah & his family when God could have simply started over, with a fresh creation?

 

The flood was like a spiritual cleansing for all the earth and its inhabitants. A mikvah to renew & rededicate. Like the waters of the womb, a rebirth, a second chance. Did God regret the flood?  The rainbow is the covenant between God & humans to Žnever again destroy the earth" or a reminder to God itself  "never again"?  Does God remember?   Does God remember us?

 

This parsha also includes the Tower of Babel. Here, I think God is annoyed with people being so similar. They are getting along so well, in fact, no one wants to leave to "go forth & multiply". It seems evident that God intended for the descendants of Noach, Naamah & their 3 sons to repopulate the earth, and that wasn't going to happen on its own, so confusion sets in. After having unity of one language, God changes their speech so that they do not understand each other, and disperses them, each with their own language. Where there was community & closeness, now there are divisions & unknowns, each branch to find their own paths, chart their own courses. This would also have allowed for more individualism and non-conformity. Twenty generations from Adam, the 1st person, to Abraham, the first father of the Jewish people. Noah is half-way, his generation wiped out. Abraham was a descendant of Noah's first-born son Shem. Abraham advanced the then radical ideas of monotheism. Along with Sarah, he had a much more positive approach in influencing people than Noah & Naamah did.  With God's guidance, they had a profound effect on our beginnings. We are all descendants of Noah & Naamah & then Abraham & Sarah. For this reason, the Tower of Babel was a positive development in our history.

 

If I look at this parsha Noach as a whole chapter, not just the section that we read, I ask myself this question: What is the connection between the ark, the rainbow, the tower of Babel, and the listing of all the generations? Why are they all part of the same chapter? My answer, though certainly not conclusive, is this. It's about memory, about being remembered, and how we want to be remembered by those who come after us. Consider this. . .

 

The ark. . .very large, its journey quite dramatic. Noah is forever associated with it. How well would we remember Noah had he not built the ark? Would we have known him for being righteous? Was he saved so that he could do our remembering for us, of the 10 generations that came before him, back to Adam?

Why does the Torah say  "God remembered Noah and the beasts in the ark and caused the waters to recede". Did God forget? Was it that busy?

 

The rainbow. . .very large, expansive, dramatic. When we see it, we are to remember the covenant with God. When God sees it, God is supposed to remember us.

 

The Tower of Babel was so large as to reach the heavens, and so dramatic as to make all that would see it remember the people who built it. It was built for all the wrong reasons, out of vanity. The tower reminds me not to be ego-driven and to be for others as well as myself. God caused us not to remember each other's language. This is there to remind us we are all human and all connected. We need to look beyond languages and cultures. Communication becomes critical.

 

Finally, there are the names of the first born sons, from generation to generation, l'dor v'dor. Who was born to whom. The way to be remembered is through the generations that follow. How we are remembered is not entirely up to us. Live a good, honest life anyways. Strive to be for yourself and for others. If not now, when? If not now to be a tzadik, a righteous person, then when? If not now to be generous & loving & grateful, then when?  If not now to have a Bat Mitzvah, then when?

 

One more question that resonates with me is, what does this have to do with me? The pieces have started to fit together for me.  Ten years ago, I had just turned 40, on course, married with children, plowing my fields as it were, and enjoying my abundance. Suddenly, without warning, I was told there would be a storm so powerful its force would change my life forever, leaving me a widow. God told me to prepare. It was time to begin the ark. Although at times it felt like an overwhelming task, I did what I needed to do. I was on purpose. Under my tallit, I took my ailing husband Len, my very young sons Jason & Mark, 2 by 2, my loving friends & family, my community, healing prayers, & hope. It grew very, very dark. With God's guidance, we weathered the storm, not knowing how long it would last.  It was big and it was dramatic.

 

When the waters receded and calm returned, and Len's spirit was freed, my sons & I began our rebirth, looking after our land & ourselves. That was on the 17th of Cheshvan, the same date, according to Midrash, which the flood of Noah's generation began. It ended around one year later, the same amount of time the storm in my life took.  The rainbow was omnipresent. It is etched permanently onto Len's gravestone in Mountain View cemetery.  I had forgotten that when I began researching this parshat Noah. It reads, "There is a rainbow in view, I'm reminded of you". It's from a song I wrote during that year. It reminds me that we are safe and that God remembers me.  That it is God steering my boat. A sign of hope & faith that I will have koach & ruach, strength and spirit, to embrace the life that God has blessed me with.  Noah was a man dedicated to his family, to his faith, and to his purpose. That inspired me. Just like in this parsha and others, there isn't always an obvious connection between all the chapters in one's book of life. Sometimes, you know you're on the right path. Other times, you have to make the connections through prayer, intuition & trust. These days, I am at peace, beyond searching for my purpose. Purpose changes as we change. I was on purpose at 40, as I am today at 50. I live every day as if it was my first, with a deep sense of gratitude.

 

My heart is full for those I love today, and those I remember. I am blessed with the gift of living my life amidst 4 living generations. Thank you Mom for your never-ending love and guidance & radiant smile.

 

Thank you to my children & teachers Jason & Mark, for participating today and for bringing such joy to my life. Thank you to my spirited granddaughter Rory, for showing me colours of the rainbow I never saw before. My best friend and husband Barry walks close beside me on this path. Thank you for co-leading Shachrit with me & for your ocean of devotion. Thank you also to my mother-in-law Bernice, for coming from Montreal to be here today and for being so supportive. It's not every mother-in-law who comes to her daughter-in-law's Bat Mitzvah!  Hope you didn't get too many funny looks about that one.

 

So many riches and lessons of the generations who walked before me. I remember them & thank them all for their teachings. I thank all those women who had Bat Mitzvot as adults, paving the way for me to stand here today, like Susan & Sheryl & Linda & Gloria & Myrna & those I don't know about. Thank you Gloria & Myrna for leyning today.

 

I thank Reb Zalman Shachter-Shalomi for manifesting the ideas of Jewish Renewal that spawned Or Shalom. Thank you to Rabbis Hillel & Laura for taking such good care of us.  I am inspired by you both. Thanks to all of you for participating here today. It is very meaningful for me to honour my Jubilee year in this way. It is a marker on my spiritual journey. I am in peace and on purpose. Let me assure you that even though I've had my Bat Mitzvah, I still intend to keep coming on Shabbat.

                                                                        Shabbat Shalom   

 

 

 

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