Global Jewish Reflections is a recurring feature highlighting the spiritual wisdom of rabbis, Jewish educators, and others from around the JDC world.
“Ve-samachta be-chagecha vehayita ach sameach…”
The Torah describes the specific dimensions of Noah’s ark: approximately 180 meters long, 30 meters wide, and 18 meters high. However, the medieval Jewish scholar Nachmanides questions these dimensions, suggesting they were totally inadequate to house each animal and bird. For him, the story can be explained only by a miracle: Wonderfully, the ark was able to include all the animals.
But if all that was needed was a miracle, why was Noah asked to build such a large ship? Any boat would have been enough if it was simply dependent on supernatural events. Maimonides, another medieval Jewish scholar, suggests that the ark’s dimensions were intended to attract the curiosity of Noah’s neighbors, so that they would inquire why it was being built. Through that process, Noah could warn everyone about the divine strategy behind destroying the world and give everyone a chance to repair their characters and act differently.
However, Noah doesn’t do this — instead building the ark in isolation. It’s this silence that has always bothered me. Those who refuse to interfere and those who remain silent are not blameless. Omission is a type of action. Silence is its own message. Indifference is a clearly communicated attitude all its own. Looking the other way because it’s not your turn doesn’t release you from responsibility. In each of our hands is the possibility to build an ark for ourselves. In our voices is the possibility to ask the big, important questions. In our actions lie the power to decide to save the world.
It’s hard to read Noah in this century, when a mammoth effort like building the ark is not in fashion. Spending 120 years building something, while not totally convinced of the task at hand, feels practically impossible. The number 120 is symbolic, representing the length of Moses’s life. But in modern culture, that kind of effort and achievement have gone out of style when compared to immediate results and enjoying what’s right in front of us.
We can believe that only Noah was predestined for this work, that his chosen-ness is what gave value to his efforts. G-d tells Noah: “Make for yourself an ark” (Genesis 6:14). The text doesn’t include the possibility of a plural “you.” Midrash Tanchuma explains that G-d made Noah struggle by building the ark so that the people of his generation would see him busy with his task and ask: “Why are you doing that?” Then Noah would have the chance to tell them G-d was bringing a flood to the world, news that might cause them to regret their actions. But no one asked.
Noah isn’t working to save himself, as G-d has already chosen him to be rescued. Noah instead acts as a motivator through his actions. In the face of uncertainty, he invites people to challenge their assumptions and expectations. He is an “influencer,” teaching that well-directed efforts can build a different world. Noah doesn’t hide behind his ego. Rather, he altruistically wants everyone to overcome the waters threatening to drown them. Noah doesn’t preach — he acts. His story teaches us that hard work and consistency are important Jewish values.
Elie Wiesel, of blessed memory, the great writer and survivor of the Holocaust, offers a poignant insight, calling Noah the first “survivor.” His world had experienced destruction, and Noah was reluctant to leave his ark. He knew that the world had become a giant graveyard for all the people he’d ever met. He just couldn’t face it.
Once on dry land, after giving thanks to G-d and bringing sacrifices, the Torah tells us that Noah’s reaction to the flood is to plant: “He began to till the land and planted a vineyard” (Genesis 9:20). Planting after great destruction is undoubtedly a meaningful and satisfying response, representing hope and belief in the future.
But what does Noah plant? He plants a vineyard and drinks its wine. He gets drunk and wallows in the misery of his tent. Poor Noah cannot face the fact that everyone except himself and his immediate family were destroyed in the flood. Unable to face reality, he needs an escape and turns to alcohol.
We learn from Noah that being a survivor is not the same thing as really surviving.
We learn from Noah that being a survivor is not the same thing as really surviving. When he’s the hero of the story, building the ark and serving as a role model for his neighbors, Noah finds a purpose to his path. The model makes sense to him — it’s fulfilling. But when his role in the story changes, Noah slips into despair. Even his efforts to lean into hope have negative results for him.
Noah teaches that survival is important and noble. But when we’re transformed by circumstances from feeling like the heroes of our stories to mere witnesses, it’s only gratitude that will keep us standing.
Rabbi Ariel D. Sigal is a sociologist and a Kaplan Leadership Initiative fellow through DIRECTORES, Kaplan Fellows@LEATID. He describes himself as a “dreamer of an integrated spiritual world between G-d and science.” He received his Master’s in Regional Integration Processes at UBA Argentina and studied Rabbinical and Biblical Literature at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Israel. He currently serves as a rabbi for Círculo Israelita de Santiago in the Chilean capital, focused on youth and education.