Sermon Parashat Noach
13th October 2018
I’m sure plenty of us have done it. Whether when reading a toddler a story, playing with a plastic ark and animals or singing songs about the animals going in two by two, we’ve all relegated the main female character to Mrs Noah. No forename. So, the words written by Rabbi Paul Kipnes of Congregation Or Ami in California, circulated by the American Reform Movement, really made me think of those relegated to the margins or left in the darkness.
Kipnes writes, “In this week’s parashah, Noach, we hear from Noah’s unnamed wife. She reminds us that it is not easy being one of the women in the Torah. Although these women ensured the future of humanity and of our people Israel, too often they are unnamed, demonized, silenced, or forgotten.
But we can change all that. When we speak their names, and return their stories to them in truth, we reclaim their gifts and we reclaim our truths too.”
Rabbi Kipnes invites us to meet Noah’s wife.
“Noah, with his sons (who we know to be called Shem, Ham and Yafet), his wife (unnamed), and his sons’ wives (unnamed) came into the ark (Gen. 7:7).
Speak my name, says the unnamed wife of Noah. Five times the Torah mentions me, never by name (Gen. 6:18; 7:7, 13; 8:16,18). I went into the ark with him. We left together. Don’t you imagine we laboured together too?
We shared a partnership. Through the rains and the flooding, the feeding and the seed-collecting, the ark-riding and replanting. Together with the Creator, we recreated this world anew.
I am Naamah, daughter of Lamech and sister of Tubal-Cain (Gen. 4:22). My name means pleasing, as my actions were pleasing (ne’imim), as my beauty (some say) was pleasing (B’reishit Rabbah 23:3). I was hidden in the Torah, but recalled by the Rabbis, and chosen by the Merciful One, to be consoler of a new world. Yes, I consoled our sons after they endured Noah’s drunkenness, after Noah cursed them (Gen. 9:20-25).
Still, the Rabbis silenced my contributions, by reimagining me to be an idolater and seducer of men (B’reishit Rabbah 4:22). They said that like Lilith, I harm infants and abuse people in their sleep (Zohar, B’reishit 4:7). Why was it so hard for them to embrace my accomplishments? Speak of me, lest you conspire to silence me too. I am Naamah. Remember my name.”
Mrs Noah, or Naamah as Bereshit Rabbah names her, was deemed other, suspicious, second class and left to be marginalised from history.
Today, others are also marginalised. This week a group of representatives from different Reform shuls, who are responsible for the welfare of members, met to begin an important piece of work on mental health in our communities. To highlight the plight of some of our congregations we had made short films of various members of Reform movement synagogues answering questions about the impact of their mental health on their lives, the role their community played and what it could have done better.
As part of the organising team this, wasn’t the first time I had seen these films but still they moved me beyond words and gave me lots to think about. The thing that struck me this time, however, is how familiar the faces on the screen were to me and how far they were from the people we were hoping they represented: those so often in the shadows of our community, those less well known to us or who have distanced themselves or been distanced by us. The people we asked were the people we knew and felt we could make this really personal request of, so maybe it isn’t surprising that those less well known were not included. We listened to:
- The daughter of the Chair and founder member of one of our communities who grew up in the heart of her shul and who lives with schizophrenia.
- The recently retired GP who was senior warden of one of our biggest shuls but signed himself off work when he was struggling with suicidal thoughts and severe depression.
- One the care professionals from one community who cares for so many while herself battling with bipolar disorder.
- A committed and passionate RSY madrich who taught us about his challenging childhood battling body dysmorphia and how happy he now is as a transgender young adult.
We heard from Dani, Andrew, Sarah and Zach, individuals with their own stories, their own experiences, their own names. Leaving people in the shadows, unnamed and unappreciated is not something that ended when the Midrashim game names to the countless unnamed women of Torah. It took many more generations for the role of women to be equal to men. Our videos may have given names to a handful of our Reform synagogue members who struggle with their mental wellbeing but many members of ours and within our movement still feel themselves alienated, apart and anonymous because they end up being ignored, marginalised or being labelled by mental health professionals without our knowing their names.
This week marked Mental Health Awareness Day but one day is not enough. Mental wellbeing needs to be a part of our community life. We need constantly to ask people what part community can play in their lives so we know them as Naamah, we know them as the person they are and not by the label they may have acquired.
This piece of work needs to touch every demographic and break the taboo even further. We have to realise that we all have a role in creating a community which is truly inclusive. On Wednesday 14th November Jonny Benjamin and Natasha Devon will be speaking at the synagogue, focusing on the mental health of our youth. On May 23rd we are running a full day conference at West London Synagogue working further on how we create communities with mental wellbeing, but throughout this time we have to remember that we have members struggling every day with their mental health. We have to remember that we can truly make a difference. As Rabbi Kipnes said, “When we speak their names, and return to them their stories in truth, we reclaim their gifts and we reclaim our truths too.” We have to know each other and truly meet and engage with each other to accept one another for who we are. We can all be part of that task and, if you would like to be part of it, do let me know.
Rabbi Zoe Klein Miles of Temple Isaiah in Los Angeles said, “When we lift and redeem each other’s voices out of the depths, as Rabbi Kipnes does, we begin to create that world. We become like Noah and Naamah, filling our ark with stories and names, lest they be lost to the churning flood. We become like Naamah and Noah, birthing a new rainbow-colored world.” Be part of this important piece of work this year. We can all live under God’s rainbow when we understand each other’s complexities and call each other by name.