This week’s Torah portion is parashat Noach. The story of Noach is one we all know. It’s a story we grew up with; one that is entrenched in our popular culture — in colouring books, Saturday morning cartoons, novels, films and countless comedy routines.
The basic story is as follows:
Noach is an אִישׁ צַדִּיק (a righteous man) who walks with God. God instructs Noach to build an ark as God will soon bring forth a great flood that will destroy all living things upon earth. Noach gathers his family and two of every animal onto the ark. The rains last forty days and forty nights. The ark comes to rest upon Mount Ararat. Noach releases a dove that returns with an olive branch; a sign that it’s safe to leave the ark. Noach, his family and all the animals leave the ark to start a new life in the new world. God makes a covenant with Noach, in the form of the rainbow, to not destroy the world again. Noach’s children are fruitful and multiply and replenish the earth.
This is the story of Noach that most of us recall and have passed down to our children. It is a story of redemption, hope and peace and, of course, lots of cute animals on an ark. It’s the perfect bedtime story — appealing and comforting. It’s no coincidence that the name Noach is derived from the hebrew word נֶחָמָה which means “comfort”.
Yet upon closer examination, this seemingly child-friendly story isn’t as familiar or as comforting as we may recall. As Timothy Findley writes in the prologue to Not Wanted on The Voyage, his novel based on the Noach story, “everyone knows it wasn’t like that.”
In studying this parsha these past few weeks, I was struck by how much of the story “isn’t like that”. Yes, there are rainbows and doves. But there’s also mass destruction, death, indecency, idolatry and even sexual assault. It turns out that Noach is one of the scariest stories in the Torah. We should read it and tremble instead of reading it and smiling.
So, how can we reconcile the PG version of Noach with the more sinister and often R-rated version of the story which includes, among other things, the depiction of Noach as a profane drunkard who is disgraced by his youngest son?
The answer may be found in revisiting Noach’s name and the notion of נֶחָמָה. After the Flood, God promises Noach, “So long as the earth exists, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease.” The natural order of the world, God tells Noach, is a balance between comfort and discomfort. We need to endure the discomfort of labouring in the fields to reap the comfort of the harvest. Similarly, we accept the discomfort of our long harsh Toronto winters so that we can enjoy the comfort of our brief summer season.
As Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch commented in reference to this pasuk, “year round summer is not good for society. When life is too easy and people have too much time on their hands, society deteriorates.”
And so it was in the time of Noach. Before the Flood, life was too easy and comfortable. It was summer year round. People had too much time on their hands. The result of all this comfort and easy-living was the rise of immorality, idolatry and violence. “And God saw the earth, and behold it had become corrupted, for all flesh had corrupted its way on the earth.”
The sinister parts of the Noach story remind us of the dangers of being too comfortable. Of taking life too easy. Of resting upon our laurels. As Rabbi Eric Linder notes in his essay, The Comfort of Noach, “Judaism teaches that comfort is a neighbour to apathy.”
We are fortunate to be living at a time of unprecedented comfort. We have all these conveniences: 24 hour grocery stores, smartphones that can summon an Uber at a tap of a button, drive-thru Starbucks and even, this is true, on-demand beauty services that bring mani/pedis right to your door. It’s a great time to be alive!
Yet the lesson we learn from Noach is that too much נֶחָמָה can be too much of a good thing. How can we be attuned to the suffering and discomforts around us when our greatest daily challenge is searching for a strong WiFi signal? Will our comfort be our undoing as it was for the generation of the Flood? Or, can we find grace within our comfort — note that the hebrew word for grace, חֵן, is נֹחַ spelled backwards — and strive to live as צַדִיקִים?
עֲשֵׂה לְךָ תֵּבַת עֲצֵי־ גֹ֔פֶר, make for yourself an ark of gopher wood, God instructs Noach. The ark is both the physical and metaphorical vessel that carries Noach, and by extension the human race, from damnation to salvation. It is a space of holiness and protection against the forces of temptation and corruption that surround us and the evil inclination (יֵצֶר רַע) that lies within us.
The ark is also a sign; a warning sign that God instructs Noach to construct right in front of the people. As Rashi notes,
Why did God burden Noach with this construction? In order that the people of the Generation of the Flood should see him occupying himself with it for one hundred twenty years and ask him, “For what do you need this?” And he would say to them, “God, is destined to bring a flood upon the world.” Perhaps they would repent.
The Midrash says that God specifically wanted Noach to construct this massive boat on a mountain top so that it would arouse peoples’ curiosity. This way people would ask Noach ― "What are you building?" ― and Noach could warn them about the impending catastrophe that could be avoided if they would change their ways.
Well, over the course of 120 years, the people ignored this massive warning sign which led to their ultimate doom.
This begs the question: What arks are being built right now, in front of our eyes, that we're ignoring at our own peril? What warning signs are we failing to heed? What actions do we need to take to avoid the fate of the Flood generation?
I’d like to highlight one ark, a global ark, that is in the early stages of construction that we can not afford to ignore. Last month, the United Nations General Assembly adopted 17 Global Goals intended to address three primary objectives: end extreme poverty, fight inequality and injustice, and fix climate change by the year 2030.
United Nations Development Program (UNDP) Administrator Helen Clark noted: "If we all work together, we have a chance of meeting citizens’ aspirations for peace, prosperity, and wellbeing, and to preserve our planet.”
This particular ark doesn’t include two of every animal but rather sets out 17 specific issues we need to address within the next 15 years:
- No poverty
- Zero hunger
- Good health and well being
- Quality education
- Gender equality
- Clean water and sanitation
- Affordable and clean energy
- Decent work and economic growth
- Industry, innovation and infrastructure
- Reduced inequalities
- Sustainable cities and communities
- Responsible consumption and production
- Climate action
- Life below water
- Life on land
- Peace and justice strong institutions
- Partnerships for the goals
The good news is that this modern day ark isn’t being built by one 800 year old man. It’s an ark that we all can and need to build together.
Where do we start? What tools do we have? As a first step, I encourage everyone here and across our community to go to globalgoals.org. There you’ll find more information about this initiative and ways in which you can take action to help build this ark one plank at a time. I also hope that our Tikkun Olam Committee and our Youth groups find ways to get involved and take action in building this new ark.
I’d like to believe that, unlike Noach’s neighbours, we will not ignore the ark that is being built before our eyes. Remember, we’re all in the same boat!