I’d like to begin with a word from one of the most famous and successful philosophers of our time: Bill Cosby. Bill Cosby, in the early stages of his career, had a hilarious routine about Noah and the flood. In it he speaks about 2 hippos that are being herded through the doors of the Ark. Suddenly he hears Gd saying, “Wait a minute Noah, both of those are male. We need a female.”
Noah is furious. He complains that it’s difficult to turn a hippopotamus around on a boat, much less take him out, and then go round up another one. Gd says, “I don’t care. Get another hippo!”
Finally, in desperation Noah shouts, “Why don’t you just change one of them?”
Gd replies, “Noah, how long can you tread water?”
Sometimes in life we have to learn how to tread water. Sometimes the storms of life are so strong and frightful that it’s better to tread water, to stay where we are, to just hunker down and wait out the storm than confront it head on and risk being carried away by it. Perhaps that’s what Noah’s Ark was—a safe place to hunker down and wait out the storm of a mankind gone berserk.
My colleague, Rabbi Baruch Melman (email 10/27/03, “Man In The Box”), points out that if you look closely at the text of the Torah you’ll see that Noah was not the captain of his ship, for there really was no ship. It wasn’t even a boat. The Torah uses the word teyva to describe Noah’s flotation device, which literally means, “box.”The English word “tub” quite possibly derives from the Hebrew teyva, as they share the same root letters. According to the instructions in the Torah, it was built in a rectangular shape, with squared edges and a flat bottom—not like a boat which is designed with rounded and curved features more useful for navigation. A boat, by design and practice, more readily belongs in the water. A tub, by contrast, more readily belongs on the earth.
Noah’s ark, then, was built as a receptacle for the salvation of the remnant of all living things, as a refuge from chamas—the Torah term for the violence that consumed all the earth. The terminology of implicit groundedness by the pointed use of the word teyva indicates Gd’s inclination that the ark not be used. Rather, it implies that Gd’s deepest wishes were for mankind to repent and pull back from the brink of destruction. In other words, were the ark to have in its design a bias for floating, it would have indicated Gd’s predetermination to bring on the flood. But because its design bias was for groundedness on the earth, it indicated Gd’s preference for mankind to return to Him and heal.
Not being a ship, then, there was no steering mechanism, no rudder, no navigational controls nor source of power other than the Divine guidance system. Noah built the box, but Gd steered it.
Sometimes in life, most of us will crawl into a box to escape the violent storms around us. It happens when we feel that we’re no longer in control—that we’re not the captains of our ship. Our navigational controls that steered us before are no longer working and we feel helpless and somewhat hopeless, so we crawl into an ark of our own making. Some people crawl in so far that they fall into a hole of addiction—drugs, alcohol and the like. We must do like Noah when we feel out of control and crawl into a box—just let go and ask Gd to steer our lives,
It happens to us as individuals and it happens to us as a people. For millennium the Jewish people weathered the storms of persecution and oppression. We didn’t abandon our traditions as other persecuted peoples have—falling prey to the seductions around us and melting away into the mainstream and disappearing. Instead we sought refuge in the Ark of Torah. No matter how severe the oppression, no matter how poor a Jew was, for example, on Shabbos he could escape it all, for he was a king in his holy home with his wife as the queen along with the Shabbos queen surrounded by Malachey Hashareyt and Malachey Elyon, the Shabbos angels we sing about in Shalom Aleychem. There was the shule and the house of study where a Jew could enter a holy realm filled with the Shechina, the indwelling presence of Gd Himself and feel his inner self connected and uplifted. This undoubtedly is the mystical and magical secret of Jewish survival.
About 15 years ago I was introduced to a great little book of wisdom by Noah benShea called, Jacob the Baker. In his sequel, Jacob’s Journey, Jacob the Baker teaches us the lesson of Noah: The lesson of Noah teaches us that there comes a time in each of our lives when it is necessary to build an ark, to create a structure in which we can hide—a habit or a place or an attitude within ourselves that will shelter us—if we are to survive life’s terrible storms.
“Yes,” said Joseph, interrupting, thinking back on the story he read as a child, “but why was Noah told to put a window in the ark? What could he see by doing this but the sadness of his fate?”
“My friend,” said Jacob, “faith sees beyond fate. Noah was told to put a window in the ark so he could tell when the rain had stopped, and so we can remind others who have struggled to survive that they, too, should put a window in their ark, so all of us will know when it is time to come out from behind the habit of walls we build to survive.”
“And what will we see then?” asked Joseph.
“We will see,” said Jacob, “that the world is not always filled with a flood.”
Joseph listened with his eyes while Jacob spoke; then, with a tone more plea than invitation, he asked, “Jacob, perhaps if you stay with me awhile you will turn my home into an ark.”
“If two people accept each other’s weaknesses,” said Jacob, “then their vulnerability is an ark for both of them.”
To counteract the feeling of helplessness that Noah must have felt, a skylight was built into the roof of the Ark to let him feel connected to Heaven even if he couldn’t see it for the rain and to know when the flood would be gone. As we said, there were no controls, no rudder in the Ark. The window gave Noah something to hold on to. It gave him hope—to keep looking through the window hoping this time he will see the light. So too, advises Jacob, when we build an ark of walls around us, we too must put in a window to let us know when it’s safe to come out. The window can be the trust in family or friend or just the ability to look outside yourself once in a while.
For the Jew, the Torah is the ark that shields us from the ravages of the world, and within it we can find an escape that keeps us grounded and connected to Gd—and at the same time be part of and in this world. This is the message of Noah. Let us escape in to our own arks when we must! But not to addictions like alcohol and drugs—that shield us from life and reality—but to Torah, to family, to shule, to Gd. And as Noah looked through the skylight, trusting that all will be good in the end, so too, we must look heavenward through our windows and trust in the same. Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis