Language and the lack of it is important in this parsha. Noach is an almost silent Biblical character.
He found favor in G-d’s eyes, yet few Biblical commentators praise him.
He saved the world physically–but he didn’t ask for more. He didn’t cry out to G-d to stop the destruction of the world, to ask that others come aboard the arc, to pray that G-d save the people.
Maybe he was too busy working–setting up a safe space for himself and his family and the animals. He was obedient and industrious, building the arc for 120 days, choosing and boarding the animals, getting everybody settled in their quarters: his family, the fowl and cattle and creeping things. So busy his speech is not recorded in the Torah until after he leaves the arc.
Or maybe the trauma of destruction silenced him. In any case, he did not cry out for injustice as Avraham will a few parshiot later. Avraham who appears at the end of this parsha will provide a counterpoint to Noach’s silence. Avraham will subsequently argue for justice to try to avoid the destruction of the people of Sedom.
Avraham also speaks to others about Hashem, trying to educate the world about the oneness of G-d. He stands outside of his tent, even after his circumcision, to invite people for a meal. He reaches out.
Noach, on the other hand, retreats into the arc. To physically sustain. To protect his family and the animals from the ravages of the storm. Yet the word teva, arc, points to a weakness in Noach’s behavor. Teva also means word or sentence–language. Our thought and speech.
One of Adam’s first acts is naming the animals. He engages with the creative power of language. Our ability to question, to debate, to object, to comfort, to invite, to welcome, and to pray makes us human and gives us freedom. We can name our experience, and try to change it. We can argue with G-d. We can praise him.
Moses is another example of a Biblical figure who learns to use language to fight and to lead. Of course, he was the man who he had a stutter, who felt that he could not speak, of uncircumsized lips..But he learns to overcome his reticence. In fact, he is later punished for striking a rock, when he could have spoken to it.
When Noach exits the arc after 40 days, he acknowledges G-d with a burnt offering—not an offering of thanks but an offering of guilt, perhaps because he did not take the initiative to try to save others, to argue for justice, to pray for others.
And then he plants a vineyard and gets drunk. Noach’s drinking is not a celebration but a numbing—another form of muteness. When he is drunk, his son uncovers his nakedness. And Noach curses him. His first language is a curse, an act of destruction. Then he blesses his other sons.
Towards the end of the parsha, we learn that the whole earth becomes one language. But that one language allows the people to believe that they can make a name for themselves, allows them to believe they can wage war with G-d. And so G-d confounds them and scatters their language. Communication between peoples will be fragmented, partial. All communication will be fraught.
In our lives, we are always learning to speak, whether with gentleness or power. And perhaps our most refined words are the ones we reserve for God in prayer.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.