Noach: Come Out, and See

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Noach

Shalom friends! This week’s Torah learning is dedicated to the memory
of my father, Robert Loevinger, whose first yahrzeit was yesterday. In
his own quiet way, he showed us with his life what it meant to “come
out” into the world as an engaged and globally aware citizen.

With that. . . . Parshat Noach. Many of you will recall the basic
outlines of the story of “Noah’s Ark:” the violence that filled the
land, the building of the Ark, the gathering of the animals, the
Flood, the dove bringing an olive branch. Some of us first learned
this story as a children’s song, but it’s not only a children’s story-
it’s also a profound meditation on the moral responsibility of good
people in bad times. Noach, the “righteous man” in his generation, is
told by God to build the boat and take the animals on board, yet those
readers who wonder why ostensibly righteous Noach didn’t protest to
God on behalf of doomed humanity are asking a venerable question.

Some of the ancient rabbis tried to soften the narrative somewhat by
interpreting the story as primarily about God’s patient forgiveness,
rather than God’s angry justice: this reading is supported by the
building of the Ark itself, which is seen as a warning to the violent
men around Noach that they do have an opportunity to change their ways
if they wish to avert the Divine decree. Reading closely, we notice
what seems to be a slight reticence on Noach’s part both to enter the
Ark and to eventually leave it. In both cases, the text tells us that
Noach didn’t act until God told him to:

“Then the Lord said to Noah, ‘Go into the ark, with all your
household, for you alone have I found righteous before Me in this
generation.’ ” (Bereshit/Genesis 7:1)

“God spoke to Noah, saying, ‘Come out of the ark, together with your
wife, your sons, and your sons’ wives ‘ ” (Bereshit/ Genesis 8:15-16)

One interpretation* suggests that Noach did, in fact, feel reluctant
to leave his neighbors behind and take refuge in the Ark, hoping till
the very last moment that the people around him would repent and be
saved, and would thus not enter the Ark until explicitly commanded. If
we posit that Noach was concerned about his fellow citizens, and
wished for their survival, this reading makes sense, and explains why
God had to say “Go into the Ark,” when otherwise we’d assume that one
doesn’t need to be told to seek safety.

So why, then did God have to tell Noach to leave the Ark? Would we not
assume that after being cramped up for 40 days, he’s be delighted to
see dry land? Again, if we go with our assumption that Noach was
concerned about the welfare of humankind- who are now all destroyed-
one can only imagine the pain of confronting the reality of such
destruction. It’s one thing to seek safety in a storm, it’s another
thing to go out and see what the storm has wrought; a morally
sensitive, compassionate person often finds it difficult to look
directly at scenes of pain, loss, and horror.

So God says: “Come out of the Ark”- that is, if you are charged with
rebuilding the world, you cannot avoid seeing what has happened to
beast and human alike. Noach probably preferred the safety of the Ark
to the full knowledge of the effects of the Flood- a human heart can
only absorb so much, and no more. Yet the story could not end with the
appearance of dry land, but only with Noach and his family (and all
the animals) walking upon it and rebuilding- that’s the real point,
that out of tremendous evil, even one person can rebuild the world in
closer conformity to God’s vision of justice and peace.

God’s call to Noach, to “come out of the Ark,” thus becomes one of
those moments in the Torah which is not a one-time event, but a
paradigm for living a fully human life. It’s always tempting to stay
in the Ark- that is, to stay in our comfort zones, avoiding the
spiritual task of rebuilding that which is lost and broken by choosing
not to see disturbing or painful realities. Whether it’s the poor of
Poughkeepsie, the bereaved of Boston, the refugees of Darfur, the
hungry halfway across the world, God says to each of us: “come out of
the Ark, the world needs you, you have planting and building and
healing to do, and if you don’t do it- who will?”

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

* This week’s Torah study was inspired by a comment I read in “Talelei
Oros: The Parashah Anthology,” compiled by R. Yissachar Dov Rubin.

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