On the Weekly Torah Portion of Noah

(וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים לְנֹחַ… עֲשֵׂה לְךָ תֵּבַת עֲצֵי-גֹפֶר (בראשית ו’ י”ג-י”ד

And God said to Noah… Make yourself an ark of cypress wood
(Genesis 6:13-14)

noahs_ark1The story of Noah and the flood, which is the subject of this week’s parashah (weekly potion of the Torah reading, Genesis 6:9 – 11:32), has excited the imagination of both children and adults for millennia. So much so, that numerous attempts have been made to locate physical remains of the ark in an effort to prove that the flood “really” happened, i.e., happened in the world of space and time. But would such a finding change us spiritually? Perhaps a more useful perspective would be to see the Noah story as a guide for reaching beyond space and time and establishing a new alliance with the Eternal.

In the previous parashah we learned that at the junction between the sixth and seventh day of creation, the forces of diversity, of multiplicity, are brought to a halt and creation comes to rest. On the seventh day, the entire field of diversity—“the heavens and the earth and all their multitude”—is reunited with its Source. This is the Shabbat: multiplicity sings the glory of the One, diversity finds rest in unity, worldliness reaches its fulfillment in holiness.

But that parashah also tells us what happens when the balance between diversity and unity is disrupted. Towards the end of the previous parashah we are told about the acceleration of the forces of diversity. We read about humans multiplying and filling the earth and about their daughters marrying the sons of God. We read about gigantic creatures, the Nephilim, roaming the earth. Growth is everywhere, but because it is not connected to the Source, it leads to evil: “The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually.” (Genesis 6:5). The original intention, for multiplicity to glorify unity, is nowhere in sight.

This is the world that Noah finds himself in, a world that threatens to overwhelm him. But Noah, who is described as “a righteous man, blameless in his generation”, is taking on the task of re-establishing the connection with unity so that the world can be saved from being consumed by the incessant drive towards multiplicity. Noah’s story can therefore be seen as an elaboration of the move from the sixth day to the seventh day.

There are various hints in the text that could support this interpretation. As the Zohar, the Book of Splendor, points out, the name Noah, which comes from the same root as the Hebrew word menuha (rest), is related to the Shabbat, the day of rest. Noah’s age is yet another indication: he is six hundred years old when he enters the ark. The ark takes him from the sixth century of his life to the seventh.

Indeed, through the ark Noah moves from the ordinary to the extraordinary, from a world drowning in multiplicity to a world anchored in unity, from time to timelessness. But what is this ark? The Hebrew word for ark is teva (תבה). But teva also means “word” in Hebrew. This latter connotation has been emphasized by commentators throughout the ages, including the Ba’al Shem Tov and his grandson, rabbi Efraim of Sadilkov.

Thus, the parashah is essentially telling us that speech or language is the tool by means of which one can cross from the world of six, of multiplicity and diversity, to the world of seven, the world in which diversity is realigned with unity: be it through the words of the Torah, through the words of prayer backed by sincere intention, or through the skillful use of speech with our fellow humans aimed at creating a shared spiritual context.

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Noah famously walks into the ark not just with his family members but also with all the animals, both pure and impure. One way to understand this is that the transition from the sixth to the seventh day does not mean withdrawing from the world and aspiring to achieve other-worldly spirituality. Rather, it is a spirituality that seeks to transmute our lower impulses, our “animals”, by making them part of the journey.

This is mirrored in the ritual of kabbalat Shabbat, the receiving of the Shabbat, which occurs on Friday evening. Part of this ritual is a banquet of food and wine, as well as a ritualistic union between husband and wife. Food, alcohol and sex, the very things that can entrap one in the world of multiplicity, become the means through which one brings about the world of the seventh day, in which multiplicity is anchored to unity.

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Commenting on this parashah, the great scriptural commentator Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki (Rashi) says that Noah was told to start the construction of the ark 120 years before the flood. There is a lesson here: 120 years is considered a complete course of human life. Thus, the teva, the word, is available throughout one’s life so that at any given moment one can choose to step into the ark and anchor one’s life to the One.

As Moses says when he parts from the people of Israel:

“Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’ No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.” (Deuteronomy 30:11-14)

This, indeed, is the message of this parashah: the immediate possibility of aligning oneself with God, not just for oneself, but for the sake of creating a completely new earth, a completely new alliance with the Source. This raises the story of Noah from an incredible tale about an ancient patriarch to a potent message with an immediate relevance to our lives, individual and collective, here and now.

Note: The immediacy of the Divine has been taught by spiritual luminaries of many cultures throughout the ages. For example, in the Qur’an, God declares that he is nearer to humans than their jugular vein (50:16). Jesus said, “The Kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:21).

The Adi Granth of the Sikhs says:
“Why do you go to the forest in search for God?
He lives in all and is yet ever distinct;
He abides with you, too,
As fragrance dwells in a flower,
And reflection in a mirror:
So does God dwell inside everything;
Seek Him, therefore, in your heart.”
(Dhanasari, M.9)

Confucius said: “Is Goodness indeed so far away? If we really wanted Goodness, we should find that it was at our very side.” (Analects 7:29)

Copyright © 2014 Igal Harmelin-Moria
(Copyright does not pertain to illustrations)