The Scary Side of Noah’s Ark

Midrash Tanhuma fills out details of the Noach (Noah) narrative that would never appear in a children’s book.

The word usually translated “ark” in the Biblical text is tevah, an Egyptian loan-word meaning “box.” This particular box kept the killer Flood out, but nonetheless it was a box of misery. The midrash tells us that Noach and his sons did not sleep for a year because all the animals needed feeding around the clock. 

Some of the animals were dangerous: a lion bit Noach so badly that he carried the scars for the rest of his life. Noach’s family was trapped for forty days and forty nights with ravenous, miserable animals. Quoting Psalm 142:8, Bring my soul out of prison, that I may give thanks, the rabbis tell us this refers to Noach’s prayer to be released from the prison the ark had become, because life inside his box had become nothing but agony.

The rabbis pitied Noach, but they also judged him very harshly: he accepted God’s orders without asking any questions. Abraham, by comparison, had advocated for his fellow human beings in Genesis 18:22-33, when he asked God to spare the evil city of Sodom if even ten righteous people lived there. 

The rabbis urge us to compare Noach, who only saved his own family, to Abraham, who cared for people he did not know. Had Noach had the courage to confront God on behalf of others, might he have saved himself and his family a nightmare?
What boxes do we construct in the name of comfort or safety that ultimately turn out to be prisons?

A version of this drash first appeared in the CCAR Newsletter.

Creation: Some Questions

This week we begin reading the Torah again from the beginning, starting with the two famous creation stories in Genesis 1 – 3.

That’s right, two stories. They aren’t long. For this exercise, go read them both. One begins at Genesis 1:1, and the other starts at Genesis 2:4. Take notes as you read, just a quick list of what happens in each. Then compare the two lists for the two stories.

See anything interesting? These are two different stories! They contradict each other in many ways. We are often conditioned by Sunday school classes to “blend” the two stories to avoid seeing the differences, but I encourage you to look for those differences.

Now ask yourself: why are there two stories that contradict each other? (Please, I would love to hear your answers in the comments!)

OK, now I am going to be a pushy teacher and instead of leaving you with your own delightful thoughts about that question, I’m going to offer you an idea of my own about it. If you’d rather not, by all means, just stop reading at the little line below.


My theory: those two conflicting stories are there as a clue that we were never intended to read these stories as history. They aren’t “what really happened” – they can’t be, they contradict.

What they are is a collection of  basic ideas about the world, a Jewish worldview:

  • The world is not chaos, there is an underlying Unity of some kind.
  • Human beings are constructed to live in relationship with one other.
  • Human beings  do not “own” creation.
  • Life is not easy.
  • … and many more.

I imagine you can distill other ideas from these stories, ideas about the world and our place in it. I hope you’ll share those ideas in the comments.

A Jewish Birthday Greeting

You may hear one Jew say to another on a birthday: “Ad mea v’esrim!” [Ahd MAY-ah v’es-REEM] If you know your Hebrew numbers, you’ll know that this means “To 120!”

What on earth?

Parashat Vayelech begins:

Moses went and spoke these things to all Israel. He said to them: “I am now one hundred and twenty years old.” – Deuteronomy 31:1-2

This is the beginning of the death narrative of Moses, which will consume the rest of the book of Deuteronomy. We know from this that Moses was 120 at the time of his death. Yes, I know: awfully old. Perhaps Moses meant, “I FEEL 120.”

At any rate, when we say to a birthday person, “Ad mea v’esrim!” we are saying, “May you live to be a ripe old age, and as righteous as Moses!”

On September 11

U.S. Navy Photo by Photographer’s Mate 2nd Class Jim Watson, taken 9/15/2001

There is a famous saying that holding a grudge is like taking poison and expecting the other person to die. On the one hand, it is very important that we never forget the days like 9/11, the Holocaust, and other such dates which will “live in infamy.” On the other, it is important not to allow those memories to poison us. How are we to resolve the two?

Remember what Amalek did to you on the way as you came out of Egypt, how he attacked you on the way when you were faint and weary, and cut off your tail, those who were lagging behind you, and he did not fear God. Therefore when the Lord your God has given you rest from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven; you shall not forget! – Deuteronomy 25: 17-19.

This is the teaching we read only a short time ago as part of our weekly Torah reading. Amalek was the ancient enemy of the Israelites, and we are commanded both to “blot out the memory of Amalek” and “not forget.”

We succeed in keeping these twin commandments when we refuse to allow the pain of the past to transform us into those who have done evil to us. We must not allow ourselves to be infected by the hatred that drives a terrorist, by the racism that drove the Nazis. Those senseless hatreds are what we must blot out forever. At the same time we must strive to remember what it is to suffer, to remember what terrorism and genocide really look like.

When we manage both to blot out evil and yet to remember, we persist in lives of Torah, which means caring for our own needs as well as caring for the well-being of the stranger among us. Only when and if that stranger proves to be an enemy may we treat him or her as such.

Remember? Forget? We must do both. It is not easy, but the memories of all the dead deserve no less.

The Creation of Jewish Time

The Jewish “day” begins at sundown. This is something that takes some getting used to, if you don’t grow up with it:  the day begins when the sun dips below the horizon.  The fact that you’ve been up for hours has nothing to do with anything.

Jewish living is like that, tilted 90 or 270 degrees from Western secular life.  The day begins at sundown.  The year begins in the fall.  (Also in the middle of winter and in the springtime.)  Sunday is yom rishon, the first day of the week (and it begins on Saturday night.)  The whole thing is cockeyed.

Why not accommodate?  Why not assimilate?  Why not go with the flow, for crying out loud?

We stick with it because in Judaism, time is sacred.  The traditional story is that the day begins at sundown because Genesis says so.  But we could as well read it the opposite direction:  we have that story to explain, to remind us, to keep stepping to that Jewish drummer:  it was evening, it was morning, it was the first day.  The creation story doesn’t tell us “how the world was made,” it tells us how to look at the world.  It’s easy to say, the day begins when I get up in the morning — then the world revolves around my state of consciousness. It’s easy to say, the day begins at midnight, because the government and mutual agreement say so.  But Genesis says, “It was evening, it was morning,” to throw us off balance, to say, “Stop!  Look!  Think!  PAY ATTENTION!”

Notice the passage of time.

Notice the cycle of seasons.

Notice when the sun goes down and comes up, and that will require you to take your eyes off the computer screen, off the TV, off your own navel, and out to the horizon.  Live out of step with the ordinary, so that you will step lively.  Pay attention!

Pay attention, because as Chaim Stern z”l wrote for Gates of Prayer:

“Days pass and the years vanish, and we walk sightless among miracles.  Lord, fill our eyes with seeing and our minds with knowing; let there be moments when Your Presence, like lightning, illumines the darkness in which we walk.  Help us to see, wherever we gaze, that the bush burns unconsumed.   And we, clay touched by God, will reach out for holiness, and exclaim in wonder:  How filled with awe is this place, and we did not know it!  Blessed is the Eternal One, the holy God!”

Ki Tetzei: A Trans-gression?

A woman must not put on man’s apparel, nor shall a man wear woman’s clothing; for whoever does these things is abhorrent to the Lord your God. – Deuteronomy 22:5

Historically, this commandment has mostly been used to reinforce the status quo around gender. It guards against the danger that women will cross-dress and usurp men’s power, or that men will cross-dress as a way to trespass in the harem. In other words, it safeguards patriarchal inheritance rights.

Fast-forward to the gender anxieties of the 20th century, when some of us have been very worried that women were trying to “wear the pants” or that men were “being castrated” by women. Back in the 1960’s I remember a lot of fuss about women and slacks; this verse was always a popular proof-text. Today it is handy for those who wish to buttress transphobic feelings with Biblical texts.

In fact, Jewish tradition has not always seen gender in a binary way. The sages of the Talmud recognized and discussed six genders:

  • zachar – male
  • nekevah – female
  • androgynos – one having both male and female characteristics
  • tumtum – one whose gender characteristics are unclear or unformed
  • ay’lonit – one who is identified as female at birth but develops male characteristics and is infertile
  • saris – one who is identified as male at birth but develops female characteristics and/or is lacking male genitalia

Notice that some of these categories are mutable and change over the course of a lifetime.

Some readers may think that this is a wild Reform reading of the texts.  (I am certainly a Reform rabbi!) If you are interested in following up, I recommend Terms for Jewish Diversity from Classical Jewish Texts by Rabbi Elliot Kukla. He gives citations and a count of the time these terms appear in the texts. The Religious Action Center offers a readable article on the subject, Gender Diversity in Jewish Tradition.

So now, in the present day, what might we do with the commandment that seems to say “no crossdressing?”

What if we were to make a new interpretation of this verse? Try this:

Do not disguise yourself as something that you are not, unless it is necessary for the preservation of life. Do not oppress someone on account of gender, because we are all made in the image and likeness of the Holy One.

What do you think? I have no idea if I have any trans readers, but if so, I’d be particularly interested in hearing from you.

Coming or Going? Exodus and Elul

One of the odd things about being a writer is that often you do have to do things out of season, because of a publishing schedule. I just finished writing a d’var Torah on Parashat Bo, a section of the Book of Exodus. However, the materials I reviewed for it made me think it was very appropriate for Elul.

Torah portions gets their names from the first distinctive word of the portion. In this case, “Bo,” which is usually translated “Come,” isn’t translated that way. Here’s the opening verse of the portion:

And the Eternal said unto Moses: ‘Go in unto Pharaoh; for I have hardened his heart, and the heart of his servants, that I might show these My signs in the midst of them. – Exodus 10:1

So here most translations say “Go” instead of “Come.” It makes more immediate sense, so that’s what they do. However, if you read Hebrew, or you start looking in the commentaries, it stands out as a very interesting situation indeed.

The Kotzker Rebbe took a very simple approach to the Come/Go question. He said that things were getting scary, and God said “Come” to reassure Moses that God would there with him in the throne room of Pharaoh.

The Zohar, a mystical work, takes almost the opposite tack. It says that really God was calling to Moses from the throne room of Pharaoh, and that the throne room was a dark tunnel in which there lived an evil snake. (I don’t recommend the Zohar at bedtime, unless you like nightmares.) Like all mystical works, the Zohar is full of metaphor and clouded language, but the message in this passage is loud and clear: “Danger, Moses!”

We are in a season of the year when our task is to plumb the depths of our own souls. Sometimes that requires confronting ugly aspects of ourselves: our selfishness, our cowardice, or our defensiveness. It can be like following an ugly snake down into a dark hole, and then, when we are down there with it, wrestling the thing.

The good news is the Kotzker Rebbe’s interpretation: we may be down there in the hole with our worst inclinations, but we don’t have to go there alone. God goes with us into those dark places. I find it reassuring to remember that Jews all over the world are with me in this struggle, too, each of us wrestling our own private demons.

Whatever we wrestle this Elul, may we never forget that we are not alone!