Imagine standing on the ramp to the ark. It’s not raining yet, but you know it will. You haven’t joined your family and the animals inside, but you know you must. How does it feel?
Noach was six hundred years old when the Flood came, waters upon the earth. Noah, with his sons, his wife, and his sons’ wives, went into the ark because of the waters of the flood. (Gen. 7:6-7)
Of course they went into the ark “because of the waters of the flood.” Why else would they? What would cause a person to step forward into a new and terrifying place, embark on a journey with no guarantees?
Rashi suggests that Noach and his family didn’t enter the ark until the water reached their ankles. Would you have entered earlier? Or would you have waited until the very last moment before saying good bye to what was?
I remember moving into my home: empty of furniture, full of potential.
As soon as I walked in I became inundated by the enormity of my commitment. Financial burdens, the responsibility for my family, building a safe and loving home – all this became true only when I stepped foot into a space that I prayed would one day feel like home. But for that moment, I was surrounded by uncertainty.
There are different kinds of floods: emotional and physical. What is it about a flood that terrifies so much? We witness rising waters in Texas and Florida, New Orleans and South East Asia before that, and many places in between, with terror and fixation. Things and people washed away. The world we once recognized buried, gone, cloudy at best. What then?
Water purifies. But how do we regard that which is washed away? What happens when we know change is coming?
The beginning of Parashat Noach reads:
Noach was a righteous person; blameless in his generation. (Gen. 6:9)
Tradition has long argued over Noach’s goodness. How good is a person if they leave their community behind? But perhaps Noach tried in vain to convince his neighbors to repent. While there is ample imagination for reconsiderations of Noach’s worthiness, I choose to assume it. It’s good to find good in others. So let’s decide that Noach would have been a good person in our generation too.
I find that moment on the ramp inescapable. I hope Noach did too.
We know Noach eventually took that step into an unknown future. And we know that he eventually emerged. But the story in between those moments makes all the difference.
Be Noach, just for a moment. Stand on that ramp, listening to the sounds of the animals, the rising tension in the air. Look at the land, knowing that it, and all the people around you are about to disappear.
How do you enter the role before you? Everything depends upon you.
I stood before my community this past Yom Kippur in the moments before entering Kol Nidrei, watching faces, expectant energy in our eyes, knowing the mysterious moment was about to break forth. Across generations and rows, the room itself held its breath.
And for me, it was more than “only” a chance to chant Kol Nidrei. I had just composed a letter to my community, letting them know I was taking my next professional step and saying goodbye at the end of the year.
I led Kol Nidrei from the ramp between home and not-home. And at the very last moment before beginning I spent my time looking around the room, taking it all in, wishing I could preserve the at-home-ness of the moment and the trembling of my heart.
I knew change was coming, I hadn’t yet said good-bye, and I had an awesome role to fulfill.
Such a moment.
The Flood was a journey of change, of transition, a deeply unsettling reversal of creation. Where once God created the world in seven days, hovering over the waters (Gen. 1:2) and then collecting them in the sky and below the earth (Gen. 1:6,7), here we bear witness that:
On the seventh day, the waters of the Flood came upon the earth… All the fountains of the great deep burst apart, and the floodgates of the sky broke open. (Gen. 7:10,11)
The world is immersed in a mikvah, waiting to be born again. The Flood was scary, to be sure. But it was a new beginning. For Noach and his family, they would soon enter a new home with no furniture but lots of potential. The ark was an indication of great change, which they must have recognized before entering.
What once was would no longer be, and they, the journeyers, would become the new Adams and Eves, the start of a new world.
Of what kind of world did they dream as they dwelled in their wooden womb, surrounded by water, waiting to be born themselves?
In our world of constant flux, of change and rebirth, death and rebuilding, towards what reality do we strive?
One last aspect of this story. As part of the construction of the ark, Noach is commanded to:
Make a TZOHAR in the ark, ending it within a cubit of the top. (Gen. 5:16)
Was this ‘Tzohar’ the mystically glowing jewel Rashi describes? Is it, as Nachum Sarna suggests, a slanted roof? Is it an open window to let in the light, as Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan suggests?
If a roof, then the text emphasizes protection from destruction. If a jewel, then God’s nearness in chaotic experiences is reinforced. And if the Tzohar is a window, what then?
The ark has only two points of access to the outside world: the door and the Tzohar. If it is a roof, then the journey occurs in complete darkness. If it is a glowing jewel, then the promise of God’s Presence is a comfort in an unknowable world, a world hidden from the eye.
But if the Tzohar is a window, then the internal world of the ark and the external world of constant change are in constant contact at one junction point.
It can be healthy to consider new directions using these images.
If you choose the Tzohar/Roof model, then you are safe but blind, a protective roof, but no light by which to see.
If you choose the Tzohar/Window model, then you remain aware of the turbulent waters outside, you see the people around you, and, if you are truly blessed, you can set eyes on the landing site when the waters recede.
Will you choose darkness or light? A water-tight world of isolation, or a mysterious chance for untried engagement?
Change can be both healthy and destabilizing. And windows into the world are important.
Noach’s pain in seeing the world’s pain can be a model for holy activism. As Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz has written, “Without a window, we are incapable of being truly human and acting in the divine image.”
A memory calls: Standing in London with Pizmon, the Jewish a cappella group of Columbia and JTS, performing David Broza’s anthem “Yihiyeh Tov / It will be good.” Broza had recently rewritten the lyrics, integrating the visions of the prophet Isaiah into a dream for peace in Israel.
The music coursing through me as I write this, and through each of us, is hard to explain. It is the sound of human voices in harmony. It isn’t perfect, it isn’t always on pitch, but every individual starting point desires deeper connection.
Isaiah’s dreams, blended with Broza’s, can be ours as well:
“We’ll yet learn to live together,
Amidst the groves of olive trees.
Children will live without fear,
Without borders, without shelters.
On graves will flourish grass,
Towards peace, and towards love.
One hundred years of war,
But we haven’t lost Hope.
It will be good, it will be Tov.
Sometimes I’m broken.
But when the night comes, the night,
With you I will go on.”
May the sacred possibilities of the world unfold because we stood with open-eyes in the space between unknown and known, full of a determined hope and a ready heart.