The Language of Blessings

Jews read sections of the Torah each week, and these sections, known as parshiyot, inspire endless examination year after year. Each week we will bring you essays examining these portions from a queer perspective, drawn from the book Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible and the Torah Queeries online collection. This week, Marisa James plays with ideas of language, blessings, and curses as they appear in Genesis.

Blessings and curses in this week's parasha

Creative Commons/Rachel-Esther

Last month, I had the dubious honor of reading parashat Ki Tavo at my shul on Shabbat morning, including the tokhekha, the list of all the curses which will come up on the people of Israel if we do not keep the commandments. It’s a long, difficult piece of text, and most Torah readers intentionally read this section faster than usual, and more quietly, to take away the sting of having to listen to so many curses on Shabbat.

Unfortunately, I spent the week before Shabbat Ki Tavo in bed, sick, fighting a losing battle against the flu. When Saturday arrived, I stumbled through the harder parts of the tokhekha, reading them slower instead of faster. But at least it was only the curses I stumbled through; when I read the blessings, they were loud and clear. As one of my friends said, “Better that your tongue should never be comfortable easily pronouncing curses.”

This week, in parashat Noach, we again have both blessings and curses. Noach is, for the most part, a silent hero. Throughout the story of the ark and the flood, he follows his orders from God without a word in response. We finally hear Noach’s voice for the first and last time after he and his family are safe again on dry land, when his son Ham “uncovers his nakedness.” The only words we have from Noach are these:

Cursed be Canaan; Slave of slaves he will be to his brothers.And he said: Blessed be the Lord, the God of Shem, And let Canaan be a slave to them. Let God enlarge Yapheth, and let him dwell in the tents of Shem, And let Canaan be a slave to them. (Genesis 9:25-27)

There’s a clear refrain to Noach’s text. In this new world, supposedly cleansed of evil, his silence is finally broken with a curse. And this is the last thing we know about Noach before his death in the following verse. And why does Noach curse his son? The text reads, “And (Noach) drank of the wine, and was drunk, and was uncovered inside his tent. And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father and told his two brothers outside.” (9:21-22) Unlike his brothers, Ham sees his father’s weakness. And to make matters worse, he tells his brothers, who promptly cover Noach’s nakedness in such a way that they do not have to see him themselves.

Regardless of whether I try to read this with ancient or modern eyes, I still see an unhealthy family dynamic. Ham points out that his father Noach is not faultless, and his brothers respond by pretending the fault doesn’t exist. When Noach sobers up and realizes what has happened, his only response is to curse Ham for telling his brothers the truth of what he saw.

The text presents Ham to us as the villain of the story. But as a member of a tribe of Israel with a long history of being rejected by our parents, I see him as the victim. When God set the rainbow in the sky after the flood to “remember my covenant which is between Me and all of you,” (9:15) God did not exclude Ham and his descendants from that covenant. In fact, Ham turns out to be the one with the greatest need of a covenant with God.

Even though Noach curses Ham, God never does, and the covenant stands. And what a relief to Ham! Being cast out for the sin of recognizing the weakness of a parent, whether it be drunkenness, homophobia, or any of the myriad ways in which we humans can be faulty beings, is a traumatic event. But our tradition offers us many moments in which the youngest, the weakest, and the dispossessed ultimately gain the greatest reward. Noach may have cursed and abandoned his son, but I can imagine Ham taking comfort in the words which we recite in Psalm 27, throughout the month of Elul and the High Holidays: “Though my father and mother abandon me, God will comfort me.”

The story of Noach and his family ends abruptly with Noach’s death and a list of generations. And during these generations, the time between the stories of Noach and Avraham, something strange happens. The story of the Tower of Babel appears, between two sets of genealogies, apparently unconnected to either Noach or Avraham. The story begins, “And the whole earth was one language and one speech.” (11:1) Which language do we all share before God confounds our speech?

“Cursed be Canaan. Slave of slaves he will be to his brothers.”

The post-diluvian world is still saturated with the language of curses; obviously, something else needs to change. God looks at the Tower of Babel and says, “Behold, they are one people with one language for all, and this is what they begin to do, and now nothing which they desire to do will be difficult.” (11:6) I’ve heard interpretations that explain that God doesn’t want humans to have divine knowledge, or greater power, or that God wanted to keep humans in our lesser role. But I read this differently.

When Jews pray, we all read at least some Hebrew. Our religious practice is constructed to bring us back to that pre-Babel vision of “one people, with one language for everyone.” But our deepest, most sincere prayers are not always in that one language. And when Hebrew is our second, or third, or seventh language, it can be difficult to wrap our tongues around the language of our many blessings.

But the destruction of Babel gave us a catalyst to work toward this goal. Noach doesn’t argue with God, but our patriarch Avraham does. And between the two, we learn the lesson from Babel that language is the key. Our ability to communicate was not necessarily impaired by Babel; on the contrary, Babel gives us the push we need to think of spoken language as a tool and an art in itself.

Avram is born into a world where people can no longer easily communicate with each other, where talking and understanding are no longer the same thing. As Avram becomes our patriarch Avraham, he learns to interact with God through language, whether through arguing, bargaining, or simple conversation. Even when God makes the conversation difficult or awkward, Avraham continues to respond, and without resorting to curses. The refrain of Avraham’s life will be blessings.

Just before Noach dies, he gives us the evidence that the flood did not cure humanity of curses. But Avram/Avraham becomes the patriarch of a people whose identity is defined in part by our ability to bless and be blessed. Regardless of what languages we use for daily speech or for prayer, our privilege is to continue the work that Avram began by learning to argue with God, to respond to our fellow humans, and to speak fluently the language of blessings.

Posted on October 15, 2012

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