If you read it in a certain way, this week’s portion is kind of like a horror film. Imagine it with me, just for a moment. A simple man, righteous (at least in terms of his generation), is living his unassuming life. Sure, his neighbors are a little off, but he’s just going about his business, raising his sons — until he hears a voice. The voice of God. Let’s assume it’s a whispering voice, maybe it comes to him in moments when no one else is around. It tells him that the whole world has been earmarked for destruction. Don’t worry, whispers the voice that only he can hear, you will be saved if you just do as I say.
We know this part of the story pretty well: “All the fountains of the great deep burst apart, and the floodgates of the sky broke open,” reads Genesis 7:11-12, “The rain fell on the earth forty days and forty nights.” Noah and his family are saved, along with all the animals on board the ark.
But have you ever closed your eyes and imagined it? The rush of water, the roar of waves crashing against your windows, the rocking of the ship back and forth. Your clothes, wet and freezing, sticking to your body. Terrified beasts with wild eyes being carried off by interminable waves. The grip of the current, the depth of the infinite oceans.
The biblical text in this portion gives us a lot of detailed information. Names, dates, ages — the portion reads like a police report. This lasted forty days, that happened when Noah was this many years old, this person begat that person who begat those people. All of this is important, don’t get me wrong, and absolutely serves a purpose. What’s missing, though, is any description of how anyone is feeling.
And it’s not because the Bible doesn’t know how to do emotions. There are plenty of examples in which the characters we read about are afraid, or in awe, or confused, or grieving, or in love. Just not here, as they witness the end of everything they’ve known and live through a violent natural disaster.
I’m thinking about emotions these days because my little one, bless his heart, is adding emotional words to his vocabulary, and my wife and I are helping him figure out how to use them. We talk a lot about feelings these days in our home.
Our kiddo might, for example, say “Oh no, he’s sad!” when we read him a book about a kid whose tower fell down. Or, he might bang his plastic cup on the table, scream, and then ask, “Does mama like that?” A few days ago, we were walking back from daycare and a dog barked suddenly. He held me tightly (I was carrying him, of course, because why use the stroller?) and said, “I’m scared, Mama.”
Each of these instances (and many more) provide an opportunity to parse emotional moments and develop a new vocabulary for talking about how we and others feel. When we’re reading a book, we might ask why he thinks the little boy is sad, or if he gets sad sometimes. When he’s screaming or banging a cup, we take a deep breath and say that no, Mama doesn’t like that. Loud noises hurt Mama’s and Ima’s ears.
It gives us a chance to examine how we feel in a situation as well and to articulate those feelings to ourselves. We take a lot of things for granted and don’t take the time to put them into words; we expect others to just know that we’re feeling overwhelmed or frustrated. Taking the time to explain and voice our emotions in an intentional way has, I must say, improved my communication across the board.
I’ve long felt that one thing our society lacks is a precise emotional vocabulary. There’s so much potential nuance in language. Just look up synonyms for sad, for example, and you’ll find so many your head will spin. Are you melancholic or despondent? Are you blue or grief-stricken? Each of these has its place. Learning to speak precisely about our internal worlds is a skill that needs to be developed over time, and with practice. Without this skill, though, our emotional landscape will remain forever locked inside us. I don’t know if we can ever feel truly seen if we are unable to see, ourselves, how we feel with complete candor.
The story of Noah (and of the Tower of Babel, and Abraham’s origin story, all of which are in this portion) contain multitudes of lessons. I won’t go into all the food for thought presented by this portion here because, after all, this is just a blog post. One big takeaway, for me at least, in this moment, is inherent in the omission of the humanity of the protagonists. Describing how I imagine Noah, his wife, his sons, and the rest of humanity might have experienced the nightmare of the flood makes me feel closer to them. Makes me feel more inclined to do my part to stop any potential dangers. Makes me more compassionate to the trials of those around me, and to my own trials as well.