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Noah's Ark

Noach (Genesis 6:9-11:32 )


Pivotal lessons from this week’s enigmatic parsha.

We all know the story of this week's Parsha: God wants to send a flood to destroy the world, so He tells the righteous Noah to build an ark and bring in two of every animal. Then it rains for 40 days and 40 nights, God sends a rainbow, and Noah lives happily ever after. Right?

Well, at least it makes a good children's story. But given that the Torah is the driving force of the Jewish nation and the eternal source of our collective wisdom, let's take a few minutes to uncover deeper layers of "Noah and the Ark"...

Big Boat

Our first question: What was the terrible sin of Noah's generation that God sought to destroy them? The Talmud (Sanhedrin 57a) tells us that the world was immersed in jealousy, greed, theft, violence, lying, intolerance, deception and fraud. The worst of all transgressions? Explain the great commentators Rashi and Ibn Ezra: People exploited each other sexually.

Before God sends the Flood, Noah spends 120 years building an Ark. (They lived long in those days.) This was no ordinary boat. It measured larger than a football field and contained over a million cubic feet of space! It was outfitted with three separate levels: The top for Noah and his family, the middle for the animals, and the bottom for the garbage.

(Which, by the way, shows the Torah's unique concern for the environment: Even while the world was being destroyed, they wouldn't throw the garbage overboard!)

But there are obviously many ways by which God could have saved Noah. So why did Noah have to bother building an ark? And why did it take him 120 years?!

The Midrash says that God specifically wanted Noah to undertake a strange and unusual project, to arouse people's curiosity. God accentuated the oddity of it all by having Noah construct this huge boat – not at the sea shore – but on a mountain-top! This way people would ask Noah – "What the heck are you doing?!" – and Noah could engage them in discussion about the global crisis, and how catastrophe could be avoided if people would change their ways.

Well, 120 years is a long time, and you would think that Noah would have convinced a lot of people to get back on track. But alas, instead of reaching out to influence others, Noah saw the Ark as his own ticket to survival – a chance to build a big wall and insulate himself from the evils of society.

One Big World

In one sense it is true that we have to protect ourselves and our families. Maimonides warns us about the danger of living next to neighbors who don't share our system of values. Where there's corruption, the good frequently get swept up with the bad. And we have to guard against this.

It's like the story of the community where everyone was employed as chimney-sweeps. Each day they went to work and got very dirty. But they had one rule: One person from the group had to stay at home each day – so that when the others would return and see his clean face, they'd be able to gauge how dirty they'd become.

In a spiritual sense as well, a home has to stand as a safe haven, to rejuvenate and clean oneself up.

But there's a second side to this. The "Ark" cannot be completely insulated; it must be porous as well. We have to reach out and try to make a difference in the world. The Chasidic writings compare this to a wealthy person who needs to warm himself in the winter. He could build a fire, in which case everyone in the room would benefit. But imagine instead that he warms only himself with a heavy coat and blankets. In both cases he's warmed; the only question is to what degree he's concerned about others.

Even if we aren't willing to fix things out of altruistic love for others, then at least we should do so for ourselves. Because the reality is that no matter how hard we try, some "bad" does seep in. And in the end it will get us as well.

It's like the story of two guys on a boat, and one of them is drilling a hole in the bottom. "What are you doing?!" his friend shouts. "Oh, don't worry," replies the other, "I'm only drilling under my OWN seat."

The hole in the ozone layer does not discriminate. Drugs and theft and violence have no boundaries. Ignoring this reality was Noah's tragic mistake. He believed that he could lock himself inside the Ark, and escape from it all.

Noah's Painful Lesson

After the Flood ended, Noah re-emerged with his family onto dry land. The Torah records what happened next:

"Noah, the man of the earth, debased himself and planted a vineyard. He became drunk and uncovered himself in his tent. [His son] Cham saw his father's nakedness..." (Genesis 9:20-22)

When Noah emerged from the Ark and saw devastation heaped upon the world, he knew deep down that he had selfishly stood by and watched it all happen. Depressed and disappointed, he got drunk. Then "Cham saw his father's nakedness," meaning that Noah's son either sodomized or castrated him (Talmud – Sanhedrin 70a).

It was a painful lesson for Noah, yet in a sense it was fitting justice. While Noah's generation sexually exploited each other, Noah thought he could ensconce himself in the Ark and escape. But it had penetrated inside.

The Jewish Fight

Every Jew recognizes that all the Jewish people are bound together. When there is a terrorist attack in Israel, we all feel it. The Talmud (Shevuot 39a) says "Kol Yisrael areivim zeh ba-zeh" – every Jew is responsible one for another.

I once heard Rabbi Motty Berger of Aish HaTorah speaking to a group of Holocaust survivors. What he said impacted me for the rest of my life. He told them: "When I was a child, I would look at my grandparents and wonder, what were they doing during the Holocaust? The fact that millions of Jews were being placed into ovens was no secret; these horrors were reported regularly on the front page of the New York Times. So I wondered... were my grandparents out raising money to help ransom Jews? Were they organizing secret rescue efforts? Were they demanding media attention and marching on Washington?"

Today, the Jewish people are fighting wars on many fronts. The very existence of the State of Israel is being questioned in world forums. Anti-Semitic acts around the world are mindful of 1938. And there is the cancer of assimilation, where every year, 50,000 Jews between the ages of 20-29 opt out of the Jewish people, lost to us forever.

So what are we going to do about it? Because one day, our own grandchildren will look at us and wonder...

Taking Responsibility

The Kabbalists explain that "taiva," the Hebrew word for "ark," also means "word." For they are two sides of the same coin. Each of us wants to build an ARK – the best life possible for ourselves and our family. Yet at the same time we are obligated to use the power of WORDS to reach out and influence others. Noah was given 120 years to build his "taiva." So too, we are given 120 years – a full lifetime – to do the same.

What can we do? We can speak out against garbage in our rivers and garbage on TV. We can attend a Torah class and teach over what we've learned to others. We can understand clearly why humanity must refuse to tolerate gossip and infidelity. We can organize a community campaign to demand objectivity in the media.

Noah's failure to try and influence his generation is why the Flood is called "the waters of Noah" (Isaiah 54:9). Don't think the problem isn't affecting you. Because it is.

Let's commit to taking responsibility – for ourselves, our family, our community, our world.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Shraga Simmons

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