Fumbling for the Thumb: Parshat Noach

In this week’s parsha we read about Noach, though we first learn of his birth at the end of Parshat Breishit. There we are told that his father Lemech calls him Noach because “this one will relieve us (yeNACHamenu) from our work and from the toil (itzavon) of our hands” (5:29). Lemech creates a midrash to explain his son’s name: Noach, whose name means comfort, will provide relief to a humanity that has just been cursed by God with the burden of working the soil with toil (itzavon) all the days of their lives. (Yeats: “It’s certain there is no fine thing / Since Adam’s fall but needs much labouring.”) The midrash relates that Noach provided this comfort because he was the first human being to be created with opposable thumbs, which made it much easier to till the earth or do almost anything with one’s hands.

I thought about this midrash when Matan began sucking his thumb for the first time this week. He has been trying to master this skill for quite some time now: First he noticed the thumb and stared at it for a few days; then he realized that he could put it in his mouth; and then he would chomp on it and gag himself, only to stick the thumb back in and gag again. Yet now he sucks away gleefully. As a result, his parents can sleep better at night – in the past, each time Matan would stir, one of us would have to reach over the side of our bed, feel around for the pacifier strewn somewhere across his crib, and poke our hands around in the dark (like a blind person groping around in broad daylight, to invoke an image from the Tohekha) until we found (oops, that was the wrong side of his head; nope, an eyelid; yeah, there it is!) his mouth and could stick the pacifier back in and then roll over back to sleep. But now Matan knows how to pacify himself: He wakes up, finds his thumb, and sticks it in his mouth with gusto. This one will comfort us indeed! Matan can rest (Nach) more deeply, and this solution finds favor (Chen) in his parents’ eyes much as Noach (in another anagrammatic midrash – chen is Noach backwards) found favor in the eyes of God.

Inevitably, in our lives as parents, I’m sure Matan will be the source of some Itzavon, which Rashi interprets as צער גידול בנים, the pain of raising children. It is not just pregnancy and childbirth that are part of God’s curse to Eve, but also the gap between expectation and reality: Parents invest everything in their children, only to find that thorns and thistles spring up from the soil in which they have planted their hopes and dreams. Itzavon, like Teshuka (desire), is the difference between what we have and what we want. Eve is saddled with Teshuka for her husband and Itzavon for her children, leaving her with little room for satisfaction. And yet until this point, Matan has been only a source of Naches, which of course comes from the Hebrew word Nachat, itself a variant on Noach/comfort. When I peer into the Teyva (ark) of his crib at night and watch him fumble for his thumb, I find myself paraphrasing the most poetic line from this week’s parsha: So long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night; my love for you, Matan, shall never cease.

Note: Like everything I write, this dvar Torah owes much to the insights of Avivah Zornberg. For more on Noach and Itzavon, see “Despondent Intoxication” in The Murmuring Deep.

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