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Naomi Graetz

COVID Lockdown and Noah’s Ark

I wasn’t planning to write a blog this week, but then my favorite (and only) niece wrote me and asked if I was planning to write about Noah’s ark and connect it to the lockdown during COVID. (A great idea, why didn’t I think of this myself!) As I’ve written before, the advent of COVID (soon to be 3 years ago) did not really affect us, since both my husband and I were, and are self-contained in our self-created ark. Zoom opened the world to us and we feel more connected to the “outside” world than before. However, for the majority of the world the lockdown has been horrific. Math scores are down, psychological problems abound among children and teenagers. At a recent program I attended, there was documentation showing how the lockdown increased domestic violence against women. One can only imagine what goes on in homes (or arks) where people are forced to live in close quarters.

Noah is not my favorite parasha. I image the screaming and panic of the people being left behind; the lying by the chosen, selected group of Noah’s family, to their friends and neighbors who are soon to perish by drowning. To me, as a Torah reader, it is a tedious chapter, with details about the dimensions of the ark, the pure and impure animals, the food supplies, descriptions about the rain, those who are dying and how God utterly destroys his creatures.

TAKE THAT HUMANITY!

JPS goes out of the way to make the translation more palatable by using the passive form:

And all flesh that stirred on earth perished-birds, cattle, beasts, and all the things that swarmed upon the earth, and all mankind. All in whose nostrils was the merest breath of life, all that was on dry land, died. All existence on earth was blotted out-man, cattle, creeping things, and birds of the sky; they were blotted out from the earth” (Gen 7:21-23).

What does it mean that all existence was blotted out? Who blotted it out? Did it just happen?

Robert Alter in his translation, tells it like it is:

And all flesh that stirs on the earth perished, the fowl and the cattle and the beasts and all swarming things that swarm upon the earth, and all humankind. All that had the quickening breath of life in its nostrils, of all that was on dry land, died. And He wiped out all existing things from the face of the earth, from humans to cattle to crawling things to the fowl of the heavens, they were wiped out from the earth.

It is God who did this; He wiped out the totality of his creations except for Noah and those with him in the ark. The word in Hebrew is va-yimach. We often curse our enemies by saying “yimach shemam”, may their names and memory be wiped out (see Psalm 109:13 for context). God is simply following up on what he said earlier that he would wipe out (em-cheh et ha-adam) the man that he created (Gen 6:7). This verb is also used with Amalek, I will utterly wipe out (macho em-cheh) the memory of Amalek from under heaven!” (Exod 17:14).

Noah’s ark is not a children’s story, with cute animals going in two by two! It is a horror story that should be PG-rated. Whenever I teach about the flood, I show my classes a very disturbing video “The Other Side of the Story” which is about a squirrel mother and father who are leaving their son behind to die.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RXQc4jceBq0

GIVING A NAME TO NOAH’S WIFE

Another reason I really don’t care for this week’s portion, is that Noah is in the center and though presumably he and his wife (the unnamed Mrs. Noah) were the caretakers of the Ark and its denizens, there is no attribution of his partner. Strangely enough in a midrash on eshet hayil, the rabbis recognize that Noah was unable to be the tzaddik, the righteous man that he was, without his wife:

A woman of valor, who can find? This is the wife of Noah, who caused her husband to be righteous, as God said, “… for you alone have I found righteous before Me in this generation” (Gen. 7:1). Her worth is far beyond that of rubies. Her deeds and those of her daughter-in-laws were far beyond the deeds of the generation of the flood. —(Midrash ha-Gadol)

So even though the passage only speaks about Noah, that he was a “righteous man in this generation” (Gen. 7:1), obviously Noah’s wife was someone to be reckoned with, and a moral force, because if not, God would not have saved her from the Flood. And for some reason she is given the name “Naamah” (a character who appears in last week’s portion) by many sages including Rashi.

“Tuval-Cain’s Sister is Naamah”, R. Abba b. Kahana said: Naamah, was Noah’s wife. Why did they call her Naamah? Because her actions were pleasant (ne-imim). Our sages said, Naamah was someone who was “other”. And why did they call here Naamah? Because she melodically played (manemet) the drum in worship of other Gods (literally the stars, kochavim) (Targum ha-meyuhas le-yonatan, Gen 4).

So on the one hand, the sages give her a name, but then they demonize her. It is not clear if it is the original Naamah who is being demonized, or Noah’s wife who was given the name Naamah. Thinking to myself about the aftermath of COVID, I imagine the poor woman who saw all her friends die, and with no time to mourn,  trapped in a ship full of wild animals for 40 days and nights. And then afterwards she has to start life over again. And she and her husband were no spring chickens!

Ellen Taylor expresses the plight of a woman who has to multi-task during the 40 days and 40 nights in a poem. She gives Mrs. Noah the name Patience.

 “Patience, Noah gushed, God is sending a flood, the likes of which we’ve never seen. We’ll all set to sea together.” He tells her to “bring enough food for everyone; even serpents need to eat. Patience was tried. All those mouths to feed, all that squawking, honking, braying, and baying. Noah, how am I supposed to cook and clean for this crowd? …Then the rain began, and for forty days and forty nights… Patience prevailed. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner, doing laundry, picking up after the clean and not so clean pairs.” And then at the end “The whole family disembarked, the sons, their wives, and all the beasts –clean and not so clean — the fowl, cattle, and every living thing Patience had fed and picked up after for all those months. Once off that boat, Patience bolted like a horse, never to be heard from again, in Genesis or anywhere else. Can you blame her?”

If you wish to read the entire poem, here is the link: http://www.triviavoices.net/archives/issue6/taylor.html

Many are the people who have “opted out” after working in the health and teaching professions, after dealing with the attendant tragedies and traumas during the COVID period. So it is understandable that Patience fled.

SARAI, BARRENNESS AND THE HAFTARAH

Finally, there are named women at the very end of this week’s portion :

“Abram and Nahor took to themselves wives, the name of Abram’s wife being Sarai and that of Nahor’s wife Milcah, the daughter of Haran, the father of Milcah and Iscah. Now Sarai was barren, she had no child” (Gen 11:29-30).

The verse about Sarai’s barrenness is fascinating: va-tehi sarai akarah ein lah valad. Not only is she barren, but she has no child! Ironically, this verse follows more than seventeen verses of extreme fecundity of the ten generations starting with Shem through Terach and Abram. All of these ancestors gave birth (va-yoled) to both sons and daughters. To follow up on this the haftarah from Isaiah begins with the words: “Shout with happiness O barren one, you who bore no child” roni akara lo yalada. (Isaiah 54:1)

THE LAST DELUGE

Despite this obvious connection of barrenness, most commentaries do not make a connection and focus instead on the references to the flood, which are in the middle of the haftarah as read by Ashkenazim and which conclude the haftarah as read by Sefardim. Here we have a clear reference to Noah and the flood:

“For this to Me is like the waters of Noah: As I swore that the waters of Noah Nevermore would flood the earth, So I swear that I will not Be angry with you or rebuke you. For the mountains may move And the hills be shaken, But my loyalty shall never move from you, Nor My covenant of friendship be shaken -said the LORD, who takes you back in love” (Isa 54: 9-10).

The Ashkenazim continue through chapter 55, verse 5 with more references to the flood: “Unhappy, storm-tossed one” (Isa 54: 11), and to the covenant that God makes with Noah:

“You shall be established through righteousness. You shall be safe from oppression, And shall have no fear; From ruin, and it shall not come near you. Surely no harm can be done Without My consent: Whoever would harm you Shall fall because of you. It is I who created the smith To fan the charcoal fire And produce the tools for his work; So it is I who create The instruments of havoc. No weapon formed against you Shall succeed” (Isa 54:14-17).

God concludes the devastation associated with the flood. He promises Noah that He will never again wipe out his people. It is ironic that he makes this promise after Noah sacrifices on the altar the clean animals and birds:

“God smelled the pleasing odor, and God said to Himself: “Never again will I doom the earth because of man, since the devisings of man’s mind are evil from his youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living being, as I have done. So long as the earth endures, Seedtime and harvest, Cold and heat, Summer and winter, Day and night Shall not cease” (Genesis 8:21-22).

Can we trust God? Are His promises contingent on our good behavior and sacrifices? We are still in the midst of a pandemic and knocking on our door is the crisis of climate change. Would that there could be easy answers and that it is not too late for us, humanity, to have another chance to redeem ourselves. If not, apres nous le deluge!

About the Author
Naomi Graetz taught English at Ben Gurion University of the Negev for 35 years. She is the author of Unlocking the Garden: A Feminist Jewish Look at the Bible, Midrash and God; The Rabbi’s Wife Plays at Murder ; S/He Created Them: Feminist Retellings of Biblical Stories (Professional Press, 1993; second edition Gorgias Press, 2003), Silence is Deadly: Judaism Confronts Wifebeating and Forty Years of Being a Feminist Jew. Since Covid began, she has been teaching Bible from a feminist perspective on zoom.
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