Parashat Noach – Who Begat Who

by Reb Jamie Hyams, Rabbinic Intern, Congregation P’nai Tikvah, October 20, 2017

The country singer, Naomi Judd has a song that begins

A hundred-year-old photograph stares out from a frame,
And if you look real close, you’ll see our eyes are just the same.
I never met them face to face, but I still know them well,
From the stories my dear grandma would tell.

This week’s Torah portion is Noah.  It relays the story of Noah and the ark, and the Tower of Babel. Interspersed in these stories is a long section of “Who begat who” that many of us only skim and often don’t pay too much attention to.    The genealogy traces Noah’s three sons, Shem, Ham and Japheth from whom the whole world spread.

“These are the lines of Shem, Ham, and Japheth, the sons of Noah: sons were born to them after the Flood. The descendants of Japheth: Gomer, Magog, Madai, Javan, Tubal, Meshech, and Tiras…The descendants of Gomer: Ashkenaz, Riphath, and Togarmah. The descendants of Javan: Elishah and Tarshish, the Kittim and the Dodanim…” This goes on for generations and finally ends with Terah, who begat Avram, whose name changes to Abraham.

Why is this genealogy here?  It is here because it is our collective family tree.  It ties Abraham Avinu, our forefather, to Noah, and Noah to Adam and Eve, and everyone to creation and to God.  What can we learn from this?

My friend Rabbi Dan Goldblatt says that when he chats with his congregants and asks them how they are doing, they relay stories about their children.  So and so is going to U of O, so and so is playing soccer, so and so is the student of the week.  The people are focused on their children and grandchildren.  They know every detail of their lives, the ups and then down.  But when he asks these same children and their grandchildren to tell him about THEIR grandparents, the grandchildren know almost nothing about their lives.

Perhaps it is because we don’t want to burden our children with the troubles of our youth.  My grandmother didn’t want to talk about her life in Russia as a young girl in the early 1900’s.  At 16, she hid in a basement to escape pogroms and Cossacks, and then when she made her way to the US, she was a seamstress in a factory in LA where she met and married the boss, my grandfather.  Together they and their large extended family toiled hard to build a good life and raise two children, my aunt and my father.  By the time I arrived some 35 years later, they had put those struggles behind them and didn’t want to reopen painful memories.   I understand their need to bury the past but by not knowing my family history, I didn’t understand my grandparents struggles, or their successes.   As Rabbi Dan pointed out, the young people he sees, don’t know that their grandpa was a farmer, or that his brother was a tailor, and that when they were young men, they struggled to build a life, that it was tough to be an immigrant, that it was tough to move across the country.  But these stories and experiences of the generations who came before us model resiliency and “stick-to-itivness.” They teach us “if they can do it, I can do it.”

Earlier tonight we sang Shalom Aleichem (welcome to you, ministering angels).  I said that angels come in all forms.  They can be sent by the power that nurtures us all, they can be those friends who accompany you home on the way from shul or from the hospital, or they can be your ancestors sharing protective lessons they have left for you in the form of family stories.

Naomi Judd had it right.

A hundred-year-old photograph stares out from a frame,
And if you look real close, you’ll see our eyes are just the same.
I never met them face to face, but I still know them well,
From the stories my dear grandma would tell.

Elijah was a farmer, he knew how to make things grow,
And Fannie vowed she’d follow him wherever he would go.
As things turned out, they never left their small Kentucky farm,
But he kept her fed, she kept him warm.

They’re my guardian angels and I know they can see,
Every step I take, they are watching over me.
I might not know where I’m goin’ but I’m sure where I come from,
They’re my guardian angels and I’m their special one.

Sometimes when I’m tired, I feel Elijah take my arm,
He says, “Keep a goin’, hard work never did a body harm.”
And when I’m really troubled and I don’t know what to do,
Fannie whispers, “Just do your best, we’re awful proud of you.”

They’re my guardian angels and I know they can see,
Every step I take, they are watching over me.
I might not know where I’m goin’ but I’m sure where I come from,
They’re my guardian angels and I’m their special one.

A hundred-year-old photograph stares out from a frame,
And if you look real close, you’ll see our eyes are just the same.

May the memories of our ancestors nourish and guide us in our moments of need, and may we tell our stories for generations to come.

Shabbat shalom