I love the story of Noah and the ark.
Children the world over know it as it’s often read to them from pretty picture books with cute illustrations of the animals marching two by two to the ark. Show pic Pignataro of ark and children’s book.
Naomi Rosenblatt, psychotherapist and author of “Wrestling with Angels” explains the appeal of the story for young children: “Children crave the security of an orderly domestic routine. What better metaphor of safety and security amid chaos than the sanctuary of Noah’s ark in the storm? ...No matter how fiercely the winds and rain rage outside, the ark is always warm, safe and dry.”
Another reference to the ark as a metaphor for safety comes from Thomas Keneally. He had thought to call his book Schindler’s Ark, referring to the ark of safety Schindler gave the jews in the horror and chaos of the holocaust.
But of course in the Jewish tradition of commentary things are not so simple and there are many layers to be unwrapped.
We will discover this isn’t just a sweet children’s story of cute animals in a warm ark . Rather it has deeper hidden layers with relevance for how we live our lives today.
So just last week in parashat Bereshit we read about how God created humankind. In the beginning Adam and Eve were created from the breath of God above and the earth below and placed in the world to take care of it. People were created with free will, to choose to do good or evil. But in the ten generations from Adam to Noah people had forgotten their special place in the world and had chosen to do evil – they were cruel, selfish and violent.
In that time there were no laws. God had not yet given the 10 commandments or the Noahide laws (the 7 laws that God gave after the flood for all people to keep.) Perhaps the bad behaviour of people at that time shows what can happen to a society when there aren’t any laws.
Then the Torah tells us “It was into this generation that Noah was born. Noah was a righteous man, perfect in his generation”.
But what kind of a rigtheous man was Noah?
The question of who Noah is, as a man and a leader, an analysis of his behaviour at that time of crisis, the measure of his righteousness, is discussed at length by the commentators.
Rashi explained the phrase “perfect in his generation” in two ways. It can be understood as a compliment to Noah. Noah managed to remain a righteous man even when all the people around him were selfish and cruel. He had the courage not to be influenced by people around him, but to stick to his own path. This is not an easy thing to do. Its like if you were doing an important test and every single person in the room was cheating by noticing that the teacher had mistakenly left some important information on the board and copying it into the test. What would you have done if you were in Noah’s shoes?
But on the other hand, Rashi and other commentators also understood “perfect in his generation” as a criticism of Noah. Noah stood out as a righteous man in that generation of evil people, but had he lived in a different generation of good people, he would not have stood out as any more righteous than the others.
The Biblical commentators view the Torah text as a single entity and often their interpretations are based on cross comparisons with other people in similar situations.
Rashi and other Rabbis reveal a deeper understanding of Noah through comparing him with Abraham and Moshe. They compare Noah with Abraham because, just as God tells Noah that all people will be destroyed because of their evil ways, so too God tells Abraham that all the people living in Sodom and Gemorrah will be destroyed because of their evil ways. But, whilst Noah does not argue with God, Abraham pleads, argues and bargains passionately with God not to destroy the people of Sodom and Gemorrah.
They compare Noah with Moshe because both are placed adrift in a ‘teva” (an ark or basket) on waters as a wayto save them. But, when God was angry with the children of Israel for praying to the golden calf, Moses argued with God and sought mercy for them. But Noah did not intercede on behalf of the generation of the flood.
Some commentators look at the Hebrew translation of Noah’s name. The word ‘Noah’ means ‘comfort.’ Noah was to bring comfort to the world, and humankind was saved through him. But Noah has been critisized because he stayed within his own comfort zone. He did as God commanded him, but he didn’t extend himself beyond. He didn’t move out of his comfort zone to plead with God not to destroy the rest of humanity. Noah looked after himself and his family but he didn’t reach out to save others.
But are we being unfair to Noah?? Avram Burg has written a book of commentary on the Torah called Very Near To You - Human Readings on the Torah. There he writes about his change of heart about Noah. “For years I was extremely critical of Noah. I didn’t like his silent character, his failure to open his mouth, to utter even a single word of protest as God stormed across the world in his watery rage…..” But then Burg changes his view. He realized that it’s not fair to compare Noah to Abraham or to Moshe – Noah is not that sort of guy. Burg writes “That is not his place. In the biblical story Noah is neither a lawgiver nor a prophetic voice. Noah belongs among the peole who build and do, not those who think and speak. Noah is a pioneer, not an intellectual, a manual laborer rather than a philosopher. ..He was good at big arks, rescue missions and practical detials, not at creating theories and revealing truths.”
So throughout the story of Noah, there is a question lurking beneath the surface: “How righteous a man was Noah? Was he a perfectly righteous man, or was he a fairly good man who could have done better?”
And that brings up the broader issue of what it means to be a good person. And does being a good person involve the same qualities as being a good leader? And what does it mean to be righteous? Does it mean to follow all the laws and mitzvoth, keeping to “the letter of the law”? Or does it mean to go beyond following all the laws and be involved in the world beyond (what could be seen as “the spirit of the law”)?
The issue of Noah’s relative righteousness is picked up by Avivah Zornberg.
Aviva, ever sensitive to the particular nuances pf the Biblical Hebrew language, notices that the Torah writes “Noah came into the ark. And God shut him in”. Pic of closed door. Surely Noah could have closed the ark door himself. Zornberg explains that the ark saves Noah but in some ways the closed space of the ark is also a prison.
In describing this prison-like quality Zornberg writes “And God shut him in” – An ambiguous slam of the door, protecting, imprisoning. Claustrophobia sets in, as we read of all the animal flesh, male and female, enclosed with Noah for twelve months.” Perhaps in some senses Noah’s experience in the ark was a punishment for his not having reached out to save others.
OK so now Noah and his family are stuck in an ark with thousands of animals. Who knows how long they stayed in the ark for?
And what would looking after all those animals for a year have involved?
Feed nocturnal animals in the middle of the night.
Clean the poo of the elephants.
Be careful not to get bitten by the lions.
Clean up after sea sick vomiting animals.
God could have saved Noah and the animals in many ways. So why did God choose this rather arduous way to save Noah and the animals?
What is the function of Noah’s yearlong journey in the ark?
Various commentators pick up on this theme and describe the ark as a lesson in responsibility and caring for others.
As Harav David Cohen writes “The ark had to be more than a protection against the raging elements without; it had to enclose within it a disparate collection of thousands of creatures led and cared for by Noah and his family, forcing them together, imposing upon them an awesome regime of selflessness that allowed not a free moment for self-indulgence. For Noah this was a vital lesson. He was taken to task for not having shown sufficient concern for his generation, for not reproving them, praying for them – saving them. He had been content to protect his own righteousness. His labours in the ark demonstrated to him that he must feel a responsibility for all others”.
In this way the ark becomes a bridge between the old world and the new - an enclosed space where Noah has to learn to care for others.
So when the flood ended Noah and his family emerged from the ark with a new understanding of their place in the world, their respsonsiblity to the rest of creation - which was the model for the post flood world. Whilst one world was being destroyed, God was busy creating a new world.
So if we think of the story of Noah as relevant for us today where does that take us?
I was fascinated to hear Rabbi Benny Lau (Rosh Yeshiva of Beit Midrash for Social Justice at Beit Morasha and head of the Human Rights and Judaism in Action Project at the Israel Democracy Institute) relate the concept of Noah and the ark to Israeli society. He spoke about the gap between what he calls “Medinat Yerushalayim” and Tel Aviv in a way that critisized the datiyim - religious. He described how the important social justice movement in Israel - protesting against the deterioration of health and education services and the rise in the cost of living… is an overwhelmingly secular movement. Most religious have not become involved – instead they have closed themselves in, and these were his words – “like in Noah’s ark where there is comfort inside and chaos outside”.
Does the commentators’ criticism of Noah relate to our own current government, which has decided that its Ok for Australians to close the doors of our ark — and slash 4.5 billion dollars of foreign aid, prevent asylum seekers from landing on our shores, and not worry about our contribution to global warming.
What would be the equivalent of the flood that would wake us up to the understanding that we are all in this together??
And finally what does the story of Noah have to say to each of us about what it means to be a righteous person?
Like Noah, we in our own lives try to live a good moral life. And we also create an ark of safety around ourselves. We create that ark in our family and homes in Caulfield or Armadale or Toorak. And I hope for all of us that ark is safe. But its very easy after long day at work/school to hide away and relax at home. Often when the world feels difficult and complicated we withdraw into the comfort of our ark. But the story of Noah is teaching us that living our own good life in our ark is not enough.
To be a truly righteous person you have to step outside your ark of comfort and help to fix the world beyond.