This one's given rise to some great poems. Take Noah's Wife by Linda Gregerson, which begins (immediately after the title):
is doing her usual for comic relief.She doesn’tsee why she should get on the boat, etc.,etc., while life as we know it hangs by a thread.
The poem is sharp, biting, exposing the dysfunction at the heart of this old family story. (Maybe it's God's dysfunction; maybe our own.)
Or The New Noah, by Adonis (translated by Shawkat M. Toorawa) -- "between Heaven and us is an opening, / A porthole for a supplication.." Or Chana Bloch's "The Flood." Or Rivka Miriam's "Noah" (translated by Linda Stern Zisquit.)
I've struggled with my own Noah poems. They haven't come easily. It's too simple to make of the Flood something trite and pat. I see the same impulse in some of the rhetoric around contemporary floods and disaster. (If you want good poetry about a modern-day flood, don't miss To Die Next To You, poems by Rodger Kamenetz accompanied by illustrations by Michael Hafftka.)
And then, tucked into the end of the Torah portion -- after the Flood -- there's an entirely different story, the wild parable of the Tower of Babel. Judy Klitsner makes a compelling case that the sin of the people building that tower was a kind of coercive groupthink. It's fascinating to notice that that story begins with the observation "And all the earth was of one language and of one set of words..." What would our world, what would our poetry, be like if we had only one language available to us?
The story of Babel's given rise to some great stuff too, like Barbara Hamby's collection of that same name.
What can we take from the juxtaposition of flood and tower? The lens of poetry is one of the hermeneutics I like best. Read the portion itself as though it were poetry. Look for repeated words and images, for surprising turns of phrase.
First we're nearly swept away by tehom, the deep (a feminine noun which evokes the name Tiamat, the Babylonians' goddes of salt water.) The waters tower "high, high above the earth." Then "Fifteen cubits higher the waters towered." Then "And the waters towered over the earth a hundred and fifty days." Then the people begin to build a city and a tower that reaches the sky, much to the Divine chagrin, and God resorts to scattering us over the earth and complicating our speech.
This week's Torah portion shows us an excess of yang and an excess of yin, one might say; a lack of balance. Floodwaters towering; then bricks towering. One midrash holds that the people of Babel became so fixated on building their tower that if a person fell to his death from the high scaffolding, no one cared, whereas if a brick were dropped from high up and shattered, everyone wept to see the great project set back one brick's-worth.
May we all find ourselves able, this week, to stay even-keeled. To resist the self-aggrandizement of towering over anyone or anything. To find the right balance of femininity and flow without washing anyone away. To seek to build edifices with our lives and our words which honor the dazzling diversity of human language and heart, instead of pushing anyone to conform.
Thanks for being with me this week, BAP readers. It's been a pleasure. To all who celebrate: Shabbat shalom!
Images by Daniel Maclise and Peter Brueghel, both found on Wikipedia.