Rabbi Rachel Timoner – Shabbat Noach 5783
Wow, Eliza, you have spoken truth today. This is why it’s so brilliant that we have young people teaching us on Shabbat morning. They see things with fresh eyes that we have grown accustomed to, they say things out loud that we have conspired to keep silent about.
Thank you for that gift.
At one point in your d’var Torah, you raise the question of whether G*d would want women to be invisible in the text. I want to start my response to you there. A feminist Biblical scholar named Judith Plaskow made the case quite convincingly that women’s exclusion and marginalization in Torah is not at all G*d’s intent but is evidence of male authorship. Even if you believe, as many traditional Jews do, that the Torah was given by G*d in its entirety to Moses on Mount Sinai, you must then confront the discrepancies in the text between what G*d says and what Moses repeats back to the people. One of these discrepancies involves women, and it takes place at possibly the most consequential episode of the Torah. When the people are gathered at the base of Mount Sinai, G*d tells Moses that they need to prepare themselves to receive revelation, to receive the Ten Commandments and Torah itself. The instruction from G*d is “tell the people to stay pure today and tomorrow. And tell them to wash their clothes.” The Hebrew for “the people” is Ha-Am – no gender, just means all the people. The Hebrew for “stay pure” is kidashtem – sanctify themselves, or be holy. Moses comes back to the people and tells them to stay pure and to wash their clothes and then adds “Do not go near a woman.”
“Do not go near a woman” First of all, women become defined as a source of impurity. Secondly, and more importantly, who possibly can be the audience for such a warning? Surely women cannot avoid going near themselves. Moses has just reduced “the people” who are preparing themselves to meet G*d, to only the men. Plaskow here demonstrates that it is the interference of men that skews and narrows G*d’s message to exclude women.
This, among many other reasons, is why the Torah must remain a living document, one that we can criticize, and one that we can continually improve, make more whole with teachings like yours.
And you’re asking us, Eliza, to start with words, in particular the words we use to name ourselves and our ancestors.
The Baal Shem Tov taught that the word teyva, or ark, as in Noah’s ark, also means word. And when G*d says to Noah “you shall enter the ark”, we ought to read that as “you shall enter the word”, meaning that we should invest ourselves in our words, put our whole selves in. And when G*d says to make an opening in the ark for light, we should read that we are to make an opening for light in our words. Our words should be illumined with the light of what is true. Our words should be vessels of light.
Part of how we do this is to not only critique Torah, which is essential, but to add words to make Torah more whole, so it does not ignore fifty percent of the population. As you noted, no woman is named in this parasha, despite the fact that an entire male lineage of many generations is. Well, it turns out that in a midrash in Bereishit Rabba, Noah’s wife is named. Her name is Na’amah. The midrash says that she got this name because she was so pleasant, or neimah.
A contemporary rabbi named Sandy Eisenberg Sasso wrote a modern midrash about Na’amah, solving two problems at once. The first, the invisibility and marginalization of women in this parasha, and the second, that the parasha only addresses animal life on earth, with Noah saving pairs of animals to re-inhabit the post-flood world. What about plant life? What about all of the trees and flowers and grasses and vegetation of the earth? How did that survive? With a flood of that duration, wouldn’t all of those seeds be destroyed?
Well, Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso tells us that as Noah was gathering the animals, Naamah was gathering the seeds. She wore a giant apron with many pockets and collected all of the seeds of the world in the dark corners of her apron and brought them upon the ark, where she planted them in soil and when the flood receded and the ark hit dry ground, she walked around the earth, planting seedlings and nurturing life. And if you are skeptical, let’s be clear, that is no less fantastical than gathering all of the animals.
I think that from here on out we should tell the story of Naamah along with the story of Noah, just as you encourage us to tell the story of Miriam whenever we tell the story of Moses, and to really tell the heroic story of Rebecca (who saved the covenant) whenever we tell the story of Isaac and Esau and Jacob. And if you have not read the Red Tent, which retells the story of Dina, you must. And all of this is an invitation to add our imagination and our words to name our ancestors and write new narratives about them, to make the Torah more whole.
We are in a time that feels perilous and uncertain, in which an ark to traverse the actual and metaphoric floodwaters sounds like a good idea. More than a floating vessel, it just might be our words that get us through this time. Let’s put ourselves in them. Let’s fill them with light. And let’s make sure they include everyone so that we can get to that place with the rainbow and the promise of a new beginning.