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Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Noach 5764

This week’s parsha (Torah portion) includes the story of Noah and the Ark, the Flood and the animals coming onto the ark two-by-two. It’s a story familiar, to one degree or another, to almost everyone raised in a Judeo-Christian society.

It’s not that I’m not interested in that aspect of the story. It’s just that I’m more interested in a different aspect of the story. In the Torah text, Noah’s wife has no name. She is referred to as aishet Noach – literally, Noah’s wife. Jewish teachers sometimes call her Mrs. Noah. That’s a shame, because she has a name. And we know what it is.

The Biblical text may refer to her as aishet Noach – Noah’s wife, but the rabbinic tradition calls her Naamah. The Midrash Rabbah asks, “Why was she called Naamah? Because her deeds were pleasant.” The name Naamah is derived from to the Hebrew word na’eem meaning pleasant.

Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso wrote a children’s book called Naamah, Noah's Wife. In the story, just as Noah is responsible for taking two of most animals (and seven pairs of a few other kinds), G-d puts Naamah in charge of gathering two of every plant and seed. In the story, Noah’s wife has both a name and a job that parallels Noah’s. It’s a story that appeals to our sense of fairness and equality. As authentic as it seems, it’s important to remember that, exactly like the Red Tent, the story is essentially Biblical fiction.

We don’t know too much about the real Naamah. However, there is an interesting parallel to the Torah’s description of Noah. The text says, “Noach was a righteous man, perfect in his generation.” (Genesis 6:9). Nachmanides, a Biblical commentator from the 13th century adds that Naamah “was famous in these generations because she was a righteous woman and she gave birth to righteous children.” Thus, in character, Naamah was favorably compared to her husband Noah.

A close reading of the Biblical text raises another question for me about the women in the story. Twice, the text mentions the list of people who will come into the Ark and be saved. Look at these two verses:

“G-d says, ‘I will keep my promise to you that you will come into the ark – you, together with your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives’” (Genesis 6:18) and in the next chapter, it says, ”Noah, with his sons, his wife, and his sons’ wives came into the ark before the waters of the flood.” (Genesis 7:7)

Did you notice anything? Hey! How come Noah’s sons are mentioned before Noah’s wife? What happened to “Ladies First”? Or even, “Honor your father and your mother?” Shouldn’t the sons have insisted that their mother enter the ark before them? And shouldn’t the men have chosen to enter with their wives, instead of with the other men in the family? Isn’t that obviously male bias?

Actually… it’s not. And to see why, we have to look further in the story. After the Flood ceases, “G-d spoke to Noach saying, ‘Leave the ark – you, along with your wife, you sons, and your sons’ wives.’” (Genesis 8:15) After the Flood, the order is changed and Noah is told to leave with his wife, followed by the sons and their wives.

The spectacular beauty of studying Torah is that even something as subtle as in what order the family entered the Ark, and in what order they were commanded to leave the Ark, hints at something deeper. Look at the verses again and notice that it was G-d who commanded the order of entering and departing from the Ark. It was G-d who said, in effect, “The men and the women should enter separately.” And it was G-d who said, in effect, “Husbands and wives should leave together.”

In this, we see a beautiful sensitivity being taught. In the midst of the Flood, the world was in agony. For Noah and Naamah to engage in normal sexual intimacy while every living thing, except those on the Ark, was drowning would have engendered selfishness rather than encouraged compassion. While the world was in agony, marital relations were forbidden. The Sages teach that this is alluded to by the fact that the men and the women entered the Ark separately. However, after the Flood ceased, and the earth dried up, G-d hinted that it was time for couples to be intimate again by commanding them depart from the Ark as husband and wife.

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