In The Beginning Of Desire, a close reading of the Book of Genesis, Rabbi Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg interprets the Flood story as a metaphor for pregnancy and birth. Noah floats, silent and surrounded by symbols of generative potential, in an amniotic sea inside the womb of the ark. After a period of labor — forty days and forty nights, which is scriptural code for a very long time — he emerges through the breach into a world wiped clean as a dish. Rabbi Zornberg, who is a wonderful teacher, hears the psychological resonances in every verse. She points out (as many scholars have) that Noah is effectively mute; God talks to him, but he doesn’t talk back, choosing instead to carry out his duties. Genesis never gives us the name of his wife. During his time on the page, which isn’t long, he remains embryonic.
I think the Book of Exodus is the most powerful work of literature ever composed. But these days, it isn’t the Passover story that is resonating with me. Instead, I’ve been feeling like Noah adrift on the sea; a sea that was once the world he knew, but which was now inaccessible to him. We’ve retreated to our arks, sealed the doors with pitch, and we’re waiting out our forty days and forty nights. The air outside, we’ve been warned, may be flooded with vaporized pathogens — we imagine the virus hanging in droplets, sneezed out by a jogger, or just blown in on an ill wind. A hard and violent rain keeps falling.
We’re encouraged to be productive during this period of gestation. I keep on working. Hilary keeps improving her online teaching skills. I am always comforted to hear my next door neighbor making beats. Today, for the first day in weeks, I barely read or listened to any news. I checked Twitter for personal messages, but refused to scroll. In the unlikely event that good tidings come, I’ll be told about them. The break from news inundation helped me balance myself. I feel powerfully for all those who can’t unplug, and must face this head on — the grocers and pharmacists, the people running the power grid, the sanitation workers, the doctors who treated Hilary, everybody out there in the storm tonight.
In Genesis, Noah does nothing but put his head down and listen to God, and God, in Genesis, is a talkative character. He makes it clear that the flood is a punishment: a hard reset on a planet that had become, in his view, misaligned with divine provenance. Only through sacrifice can the anger be eased. Once the rains stop, God swears not to do it again, but I’m sure Rabbi Zornberg would agree that there’s a strong implication in Genesis that he’s got his fingers crossed behind his back. Reality, the Old Testament teaches us, is capricious. God is mercurial, prone to tantrums, easily put off, and always tempted to chuck the whole creation into the furnace and begin again. Like Noah, we do what we’re told, eyes on the horizon, waiting for the olive leaf and a sign that we might be reborn.