Noach | Fancy building yourself an Ark?
Updated: Apr 20
King Solomon famously said, “There is a season for everything, and there is a time for everything under the heaven.” (Kohelet 3:1). Sometimes we need time to introspect, reflect and draw inner strength. And sometimes we need to go out and engage and make an impact on the world.
This need to find a balance between our inward and outward selves is a lesson we can derive from this week’s Torah portion, the parsha of Noah.
The big question is: Why did G-d command Noah to build an Ark? Of course, the Ark saved Noah and his family, and all the of species of animal life, from the great flood. But think about it – G-d had all means at His disposal to achieve this, why did He specifically want Noah to construct an elaborate ship that took 120 years to build? Furthermore, as the Ramban points out, despite its size, the fact that representatives of the entire animal kingdom could fit in the Ark was a major miracle. Since G-d was performing miracles anyway, why did He want Noah to go to all of this trouble?
Rashi cites the midrash Tanchuma which explains that G-d chose this method to preserve humanity because He wanted to give everybody else a chance to repent and reverse the destruction. Of course, the 120 years it took to build the Ark, gave people ample time to turn things around, but apart from this, the building of the Ark was a giant, eye-catching spectacle – and therefore an immediate conversation starter. It was something that might prompt all kinds of questions from people everywhere – the most obvious being, “Noah what are you doing – and why are you doing it?” And so the Ark was an elaborate communications platform from which Noah could engage with the world around him, encouraging people to return to their best selves and to mend a society that had become shockingly violent and corrupt. In the end, society remained as it was, and people did not grasp the opportunity that the Ark provided.
The Dubna Maggid amplifies our question by addressing another one. If the purpose of the Ark was solely to save Noah and his family and the animals, why did G-d give specific instructions about when to enter and exit the Ark? Once the waters had subsided, and it was clear that the flood was over and it was safe to venture out, why did G-d have to tell them to leave? Surely by that point the Ark had served its purpose and no further instruction was necessary? Says the Dubna Maggid, this indicates that the Ark had a higher purpose beyond the mere practical function of preserving the lives of its inhabitants.
What was that higher purpose? Rav Mordechai Gifter has a possible answer. He says that the Ark’s higher purpose Ark was to create an environment pervaded with chesed, loving-kindness. Noah and his family spent virtually the entire duration of their time on the Ark looking after the animals, and so the entire focus of the Ark was chesed. The sheer scale of feeding and cleaning and caring is difficult to imagine. And there weren’t many people to share the load. Rav Gifter explains that contained within the Ark was the kernel of the new human society which was to be established after the flood. Indeed, he says that this value of lovingkindness is the foundation of any flourishing human society, and that G-d wanted to begin the new civilization based on the kindness they had learned in the Ark.
It’s worth pointing out that the generation of the flood was one characterised by the opposite of kindness. It was a society in which violence and theft and extortion were rampant. Which is why the process of restoring human civilisation, of getting the project of creation back on track, had to begin by building a world of loving-kindness. Rav Gifter explains that is why Noah and his family had to wait for G-d’s instruction to leave the Ark – because although the flood waters had subsided and the danger had passed, it wasn’t yet clear that the higher purpose for which they had entered the Ark had been fulfilled. Had they immersed themselves in, and inculcated, this value of chesed to the necessary extent? G-d’s instruction to exit the Ark was an indication that they had.
Let’s reflect for a moment on these two approaches to the Ark – that of Rashi and Rav Gifter. According to Rashi, the Ark was essentially a platform to reach out to and engage with the world. For Rav Gifter, the Ark was an opportunity to look inwards, to build strength of character from within.
These two dimensions, the outer and inner, are in fact reflected in the different Torah mitzvot we perform. We have mitzvot which are reflective and self-replenishing – prayer, for example, in which we turn inward, reconnecting with G-d and with our own spiritual essence. Learning Torah is another example, in which we use our minds to understand the world from G-d’s perspective, and realign the way we think about and relate to our world. Shabbos is in many ways another internal mitzvah – a day in which we withdraw from the world in a certain sense and replenish our inner reserves; deep, spiritual “quiet time” that refreshes and reinvigorates us. It is a day in which we reconnect with G-d, with our closest and most important relationships, with our loved ones, with ourselves. These are all acts of withdrawal and renewal – of intellectual, emotional and spiritual replenishment. Through performing these mitzvot, we are essentially creating an Ark for ourselves.
But we also have mitzvot that are outward-looking, that require us to engage with the people and the world around us. Most of the mitzvot “between man and his fellow” fall into this category. We are tasked with reaching out to others, with alleviating human pain – with, as the Gemara explains, comforting mourners, visiting the sick, burying the dead, clothing the naked. There is the mitzvah of tzedakka, which is about reaching out to the poor and providing them with the support they need to face life’s challenges. There is the mitzvah of teaching Torah, of sharing G-d’s wisdom with as many people as possible. There is the mitzvah to establish all of the civil institutions necessary to uphold justice and establish a functional society.
And so we have this dual dynamic – in-reach and outreach, inner replenishment and external influence. The midrash on our parsha quotes the verse from Kohelet with which we began, “There is a season for everything, and there is a time for everything under the heaven”. The midrash says there was a time to enter the Ark and there was a time to exit the Ark. In the context of what we have discussed, it means that there was a time to replenish, to nourish, to realign with G-d’s values, and there was a time to go out and rebuild human civilisation.
Every day of our lives, we enter the Ark and we exit the Ark. We enter the Ark when we enter the shul and the Beit Midrash and even our homes, and when we take in Shabbat and enter a haven of stillness and rest. Inside the Ark, we replenish and realign, and then drawing on this renewed energy, on this renewed clarity and realignment, we emerge to impact, to influence, to engage with the world around us, making it into a better place.
With this principle, we can perhaps gain some insight into a mysterious verse in the parsha. Included among the detailed instructions for building the Ark is the requirement to create a “tzohar’” (literally, something that shines). The midrash offers two explanations for what this tzohar is. According to one explanation, it was a window, and according to the other, it was some sort of precious stone that emitted light. And in fact, these two explanations reflect this dual dynamic that we have been speaking about, the two dimensions to our lives. We have the inner light that is nurtured within the confines of our own personal space, cocooned off from the world – the replenishing, realigning, reflective light that shines from the inside out. And then there’s the light of the window, representing our engagement with the world “out there”.
Finding that balance – being attuned to our two modes of existence – is the key to living a meaningful life.