Monday, October 4, 2010

Parshat Noach / A New Road in a Water-Sogged World

Our parashah opens with these words:
This is the line of Noah – Noah was a righteous man, he was blameless in his age, Noah walked with God. (Genesis 6:9)
Midrash Tanhuma observes that Noah’s name appears three times in this verse and comments that Noah was in a unique position to see three different worlds: the world when it was first settled, the world when it was destroyed by the flood, and the world when it was once again settled after the flood.

But just how unique is Noah’s experience? Isn’t it the case that anyone who has survived a disaster has experienced three different worlds: the world before, the world of disaster, and the world after? This leads me to ask: is the world so different before and after, or is it we who are changed by our experience?

Who wouldn’t do their utmost to avoid tragedy and the often-ensuing trauma it brings in its wake? Yet so much is out of our control. What remains in our power – even when it seems all control is lost – is our response: how we frame what has happened in our minds, and how we respond morally. The last passage of the Flood story, ignored by most, interpreted by many, provides a fine example. We are told that after the people emerged from the ark, Noah planted a vineyard. He drank the wine, became drunk, and lay naked inside his tent.
Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father’s nakedness and told his two brothers outside. But Shem and Japheth took a cloth, placed it against both their backs and, walking backward, they covered their father’s nakedness; their faces were turned the other way, so that they did not see their father’s nakedness. (Genesis 10:22-23)
First, I’d like to dispense with the most notorious misinterpretation, that Ham commits homosexual rape on his father, Noah, and that his descendants, the Canaanites, are consigned to slavery as punishment (see verse 25). This absurd and offensive interpretation was used to justify American slavery of Africans. There is nothing in the text to suggest that Ham has sexual, or even physical contact with his father, Noah. Rather, Ham treats his father with extreme disrespect, thereby violating the most fundamental societal relationships: parent-child. Noah is drunk, yes, but in his private tent. Ham calls his brothers over to witness their father’s state and thereby seeks to humiliate him before his own sons. This is precisely the sort of behavior that brought on the flood: rampant immorality and disregard of human dignity, even in the primary relationship of parent-child. Ironically, we compound the problem – and exemplify the antediluvian world when we use passages such as this to further a homophobic social agenda. It is now only two weeks since Tyler Clementi’s anguished plunge off the George Washington Bridge, the fourth teen in little more than a week to commit suicide in response severe bullying. To use this passage to further the sin of homophobia is suggest that the world after the flood is not qualitatively different than the world before the flood.

And indeed, Torah is telling us in this closing passage of the Flood account that human nature has not changed. Evil is not “out there” but rather “in here” – in our minds and hearts. Our Rabbis taught that we are endowed with two yetzarim (instincts, or urges) – one to do good and one to do evil. These two yetzarim struggle with one another continually, and our job is to ensure that the yetzer tov (the good inclination) wins out over the yetzer ra (the evil inclination).

But note how two of the three brothers respond: Shem and Japheth refuse to partake in Ham’s humiliation of their father. Instead, they discretely and respectfully cover their father’s nakedness put him to bed to sleep off the wine. Noah has been through a trauma. He is the poster child for PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). The world – and his life – will never be the same. He has witnessed unspeakable horror, which he could not prevent, and he is forever changed. His initial response – getting rip-roaring drunk – is not a hopeful sign, but his sons’ loving and respectful protection of his dignity is a highly hopeful sign. They pave a new road for humanity, one in which even in the face of violence and trauma, a humane and loving response is possible.

What is the message for us? The world does not change until we change. In a world of increasingly corrupt and crass behavior we can redouble our efforts to respond with patience, kindness, and the conviction that decency matters.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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