Noah’s Silence: Service or Violence?

This week, I conducted a Zoom workshop on parshat Noah using the “spontaneous midrash” technique of Bibliodrama.

I sat down to write a piece of spoken word poetry to open the session. The previous week, I had written a piece for parshat Bereshit that relates to God’s speech in creating the world, so speech was certainly on my mind. Be that as it may, in the process of writing this poem it suddenly dawned on me that while God speaks at incredible length – far more than to any previous person – Noah remains utterly silent throughout the entire ordeal from A to Z.

When does he finally open his mouth and to convey what? Read on to see.

You know Noah?
Good ole Noah of the floating boat,
You might think you do
Noah the comfortable, the reliable,
the adaptable, but in truth,
he is Noah the unfathomable,
his interiority’s not noted or named,
it remains unknown, this full-grown man
to whom God confides one
gargantuan radical take-no-prisoners plan
to utterly submerge the earth
with its dearth of morality, riddled
with brutality and flooded with crime;
to mop up the mess and start again
one more time, with Noah, Shem, Ham,
Japhet and their madames.

Is Noah strong or weak, bold or meek?
We remain in the dark for he does not
speak, keeps his mouth hermetically
sealed, like the door of the ark
wedged against the pounding rain.
From God, a deluge of words,
God speaks, says, and speaks again,
far more than to Adam or Cain,
yet Noah maintains a deafening silence –
is that balance, obedience, shyness?
Or could it be, given his society,
that it is, in itself, a form of violence?

And when at last, coming ashore
after surviving the worst
he opens his mouth to roar
his very first word: “CURSED”….

So what is the meaning of Noah’s mysterious silence? We know that the rabbis give Noah mixed reviews, though he is explicitly termed a tzadik. We certainly have the leeway to interpret in a more positive, inspiring direction, or on the other hand, to look to the shadow side of human weakness and flaws.

The Bibliodrama participants were divided. There were those who felt that Noah’s silence was one of acceptance, even of awe, as he came to behold the true magnitude of the Creator’s power and deepened his intention to serve God in strength. He showed up to the plate to take on the task God delegated to him. If God believed he could do it, then he could.

Others proposed that he said nothing because nothing was necessary to say. He channeled all his attention into practical things. Obviously he spoke throughout this time, but if everything he said was of a mundane nature, small wonder the Torah simply chose to skip over it.

Some felt that he was frozen with fear initially; and in general terrified to say the wrong thing and jeopardize the tenuous pardon he and his family had received from the lethal decree.

Yet he continues to be silent throughout the time in the ark, the sending of the birds, and the alighting from the ark. Has he nothing to say? Nothing to pray for?

When he finally sets foot on dry land he makes, of his own accord, an altar. Then comes the tale of the planting of the vineyard. Noah gets drunk, and his son Ham, described as “father of Canaan” sees his nakedness. It is then that Noah declares, “Cursed be Canaan, a slave of slaves shall he be to his brothers; blessed be the Lord God of Shem and Canaan shall be his slave.”

What is the tone, the emotion, and the significance of this first utterance, and why is his first word such a harsh one, “Cursed…”?

Once again, we may choose to see this as Noah’s strength. “This is a new start for the world,” explained one participant speaking as Noah, “and I will continue to preach the good.” The corruption and evil from the eliminated generation must not carry over into the new beginning. Noah must stamp it out in the bud, in the most severe way possible. This grandson perhaps has already been showing incipient signs of depravity; it must not continue, believes Noah.

On the other hand, we may choose to see this as an expression of Noah’s trauma. Everything he has held in during those long days, trapped in a floating box with the screeching and yelping of animals ringing in his ears and a dead world outside, finally emerges from his depths. His trauma and shock at seeing the entire world he knew gone, the terrible knowledge that he and his family are the only ones left, all are channeled into that one erupting roar: “CURSED!”

His has been a silence of violence, a corrupted silence. Noah is ultimately a man of his generation.

And perhaps, as another Bibliodrama participant suggested, Noah himself feels cursed, rather than blessed as perhaps one might imagine. Cursed in this role, perhaps. We cannot judge him. He had to do something no person today can even imagine.

The world was created with divine speech. Noah is characterized by lack of speech. We can choose to imitate divine creative speech, or to hold back – and in the latter case, perhaps we need to ask ourselves why are we doing so, and whether it is indeed the right thing to do.

Speech is clearly extremely important: theologically, ethically, and psychologically. It lies at the foundation of life. Let us be mindful of that as we employ this seemingly mundane faculty in our daily lives.

Postscript:

Here is the piece written for parshat Bereshit:

Genesis, big bang? or whisper of divine slang…?
Let there be let there be yehi… yehi…
light dark water sky
mass of mud pie
trees turnips ugly fruit
day night fish flight
crawlies beasts and two
whales of indescribable girth
then birth of Adam from the mud pie
and birth of Eve from Adam’s blood pie
his blood his flesh
the two will mesh, and become one… or not…

and what was actually said by G-d’s nonexistent mouth?
how absurd when G-d made a word
it was heard – by who? – well, does it matter?
it was heard by matter
that emerged
and when WE chatter
can we imitate G-d too, creating,
yes me and you

so let’s speak, my friends, and create worlds.
Be ready. We begin. It all unfurls.

About the Author
Yael Unterman is a Jerusalem-based international author, lecturer, Bibliodrama facilitator and life coach. Her first book "Nehama Leibowitz, Teacher and Bible Scholar" was a finalist in the 2009 National Jewish Book Awards . Her second book, a collection of fictional stories, "The Hidden of Things: Twelve Stories of Love & Longing", was a finalist for the USA Best Book Awards. Contact Yael if you would like to participate in Bibliodrama sessions on Zoom. www.yaelunterman.com
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