There is a big question that every one of us is facing at the moment: to what extent should we isolate ourselves?
This is the same question that challenged Noah and Naama (she’s named in Midrash) and their family in this week’s Torah reading. They faced it before the flood, they understood it a little better after the flood; but it remained a question in subsequent generations, for humanity as a whole and for every society and culture.
The global catastrophe through which Noah, Naama, their sons and sons’ wives lived seems to have begun at the end of last week’s Torah reading, when we are told, “B’nei Elohim saw how beautiful the daughters of men were and took wives from among those that pleased them.” (Genesis 6:2). Some have understood this to mean that the privileged in society saw themselves entitled to take whatever pleased them. Dr. Avivah Zornberg describes the atmosphere as “the sexuality of rapacious egotism.” Of course, women were the booty — the objects of desire and the disempowered.
Other midrashic interpretations say that the B’nei Elohim were semi-human beings and the problem was of intermingling of species. Midrash even adds to the picture of degeneration, saying that humans intentionally crossbred species of animals. All the boundaries were broken down. The divine plan for the universe is that each species has its particular place in the creation, and when nature is distorted, intentionally or through neglect and ignorance, and each part of creation is not respected for what it contributes, the world cannot survive.
That said, incest is also dangerous. The Torah later gives clear guidelines on which partners are permitted, within the human species. We need to respect boundaries and understand the balance between keeping to our own and creating new relationships.
The baseness and evil into which the world had fallen in Noah and Naama’s time was contagious. Noah was righteous “in his generations” — a rider that suggests relativity to the evil that was all around him. Noah was not perfect but somehow managed to stay above the fray. It took Noah 100 to 120 years to build the Ark. People saw him doing it. Noah is criticized in midrashic literature for not using the opportunity to teach and convert. Perhaps he was scared to reach out, believing that the forces of evil were stronger than his own faith and morality. Perhaps he was scared that he would “catch” the disease all around him. He was challenged with the question of whether he needed to protect his core family by isolating and insulating, or whether he could take the risk associated with reaching out.
Once the rain began, the entire family had the responsibility for all the animals aboard. The Talmud in Sanhedrin (as well as other midrashic texts) relates how the family later complained that they could not sleep for the entire year. They had to feed some animals in the day and the nocturnal ones at night. What was the purpose of this trial? Perhaps there had to be restoration in the order of creation. When humans were created, they were instructed to tend to the animals and to care for the environment. Instead, they allowed their animalistic instincts and hedonism to rule them. Perhaps only through this forced lockdown, during which time there was no option other than to fulfill this original role, could humans understand what their place in creation should be.
What a relief it must have been to allow nature to take care of itself when the year of lockdown was over!
But the parsha does not end with the rainbow or even with Noah’s subsequent drunkenness (which suggests that keeping a distance from debased neighbors will not necessarily prevent lewd behavior, and that children do not always follow the values of their parents.)
The parsha finishes with one other key narrative: the story of the Tower of Babel. It seems to me that this story continues the theme that has set the scene for the flood narrative. It begins with all of humanity “speaking one language” — possibly a metaphor for not respecting diversity of ideas — and ends with God deciding that humanity needs to be separated into diverse languages and cultures. All of humanity is related — we are all the descendants of Noah and Naama (who was, by the way, a descendant of Cain) — but God wants us to live in a multiplicity of cultures. Each culture then has the challenge of how to preserve itself and its values, while respecting and learning from others. What intermingling is safe and even beneficial and what intermingling is dangerous and crosses boundaries that should not be crossed? To what extent should we quarantine ourselves?
These coronavirus days, we are all asking that question in relation to our physical health. We have to be in an “ark” to protect ourselves — and there is no excuse for not doing whatever we can to stop the spread of a virus. Perhaps, though, something more than physical welfare can come from quarantine, and maybe we are being given a gift of a year in an ark similar to the one that Noah and family experienced, when we are forced to reflect and reassess our relationships.
- We can use this time in our “arks” to teach our children well and mend our relationships with our partners. (Clearly, the spate of domestic violence and femicide shows that not all are doing so well on that front.)
- We can use this time in our “arks” to help others and build community, despite the physical challenges. We can strive to gain new understandings of the connectivity and shared destiny between all of humanity, while prioritizing our responsibility to our immediate community.
- We can strive to clarify our relationship to and responsibility for our environment and all of creation, recognizing that our desecration of the environment might be the cause of the strife we now face.
Our “arks” are essential, but we are not completely insulated; we have the ability to reach out and try to make a difference in the world.