Shavua tov, everyone. I am just back from Rabbi Allan Finkel’s installation as rabbi for Temple Shalom, the Reform synagogue in Winnipeg. What a weekend. Rabbis Stewart Gordon of NYC joined us as did Rabbi Billy Love, a rabbi/lawyer/judge from Philadelphia, who sat on our beit din in New York when we were ordained. We celebrated Rabbi Allan’s installation with a grand reunion over much eating! We seem to have a direct link between Winnipeg and Victoria – with much to celebrate.
Noach is described not just as a tzadik, a righteous man, he is a tzadikta’meem; he is perfect. Or in Rashi’s words, Noach was simple-hearted in his complete acceptance of God’s ways: “Walk with Him simple-heartedly (bet’mimus) and look forward to what He has in store.”
In the word ta’meem we learn that Noach was sincere, an innocent, honest and complete man. Noach had that perfect pitch of true righteousness. Tam is flavour, taste, but Noach’s ta’am was not just flavour, it was his simple acceptance of God, his honest and sincere correctness of execution of Torah that gave him his status of tzadik tameem. But wait – Noach didn’t yet have Torah, did he? Hold that thought.
We also hear in the root la’tom, (which means endings and completions), a foretaste of what is soon to come.
In Bereshit we met Elohim, yet here, we read that Noach walked with HaElohim, not just Elohim, but HaElohim. The use of the direct object reinforces that God is The One, The God (plural). Five verses in to our reading, we see in verse 14 yet another fascinating construction. Noach is told to a’sayl’chatayvat – he is told to build an Ark. Simple.
Our Sage Abarbanel, a commentator who lived in Portugal during the 1400’s, notes in this command, a reproof for Noach. He describes Noach disapprovingly, as someone who chose to remain aloof from the behaviours all around him. For Abarbanel, the Ark symbolized how Noach closed himself from trying to help those around him. Instead, he shuttered himself in his ark and sailed away.
Given the desperate times for Jews in Spain and Portugal during the 13th-15th centuries, it is interesting to note this disapproval in Abarbanel. Apparently, he usually took issues of the times – social, political and certainly religious into consideration; he believed that mere detached Biblical commentary was not enough. He believed that the actual lived lives of Jews must always be considered – even when writing about Torah. It is fascinating to me to note how he brought such issues into his exegesis. One marvels again at how modern pre-modernity seems to be.
Bearing Abarbanel in mind, what happens if we read this command of God to Noach differently? What happens if we read these words as a construction similar to lechlecha, the words of which can be read either as “Go” or “go into yourself.”
We can then read this “simple” command regarding mere boat-building as a timeless and more complicated command. Make of our selves an Ark. We are commanded to become a tayvat, an ark that will float on the waters of Torah, an Ark that will keep each of us safe from the tohuv’vohu (void, wildness) of elemental Nature, an Ark that will represent our individual and collective covenant with God, an Ark that reminds us we are not vildechayim, wild animals, but a people who choose order –a people who choose to walk with God.
And imagine that Judaism –a construction that is yet to come into this narrative, and yet one that hovers over Noach like the proverbial rainbow – is that Ark.
I recently read again about our genetic origins. It is the kind of idea where I feel as if I need a vice grip on my brain to hold it, and yet I find it allows me to better understand Torah in a way with which I had previously struggled. It allows me, tentatively, at least, to hold that beginnings are within beginnings are within beginnings.
All the eggs a woman will ever carry form in her ovaries while she is a four-month-old fetus in the womb of her mother, whose eggs were formed in the womb of her mother, so each of us spent five months in our grandmother’s womb, and she in turn was formed in the womb of her grandmother.
How did Noach know Torah before Torah? Torah was given, before it was given. How does Torah precede Torah? Perhaps as the eggs of that first mother, so too does Torah lodge in our wombs for generations – hidden, interior, emerging in successions of generations later.
Our bodies are our arks. Our bodies hold our stories past, present and future. New studies in the field of epigenetics are also opening up Torah. Epigenetics literally means “above” genetics. It refers to external effects which can then modify our DNA; modifications that can turn certain genes “on” or “off.” These modifications don’t change our DNA, but they do affect how our cells “read” genes. Studies in epigenetics are also demonstrating that extreme trauma our parents and our parent’s parents may have experienced is held in their cellular structure; trauma that can be passed on to subsequent generations.
For a people who have suffered centuries of trauma, but also of joy, these studies hold incredible import. Pain and joylie within our bodily Arks.
So with Noach, with Abarbanel, let’s build an Ark of our-selves. Let’s not sail away, but sail within, together, an Armada of Torah sailing towards HaElohim.