Today's portion centres around two big stories. In the first, G'd grows angry with the (it has to be said, largely unspecified) sins of both human kind and animals alike, and vows to destroy all flesh in a mighty flood. Only a handful of people (led by Noah) will be saved in a big ship made of something called gopher wood, along with, let's say several million, animals.
A few generations later, a great city exists in what will become Babylon. There, its inhabitants construct a lofty tower, as if to reach heaven itself. G'd responds by knocking down the tower then causing the people to speak many different languages, stunting any rebuilding effort and encouraging them to disburse over the face of the Earth.
These two stories, Noah's Ark and the Tower of Babel, have so many connections to the events of this moment in history that I feel like I have to at least acknowledge it before I try to move on: the Flood, a potent symbol for so many people about so many things we're fretting about this week: peace, intolerance, ecological disaster… not even Rabbi Rick Jacobs could resist, this week, tying the character of Noah to the US presidential election.
Speaking of which, Babel: a fable about the hubristic downfall of a builder of towers. Seriously, you trying to jinx this thing?
So I was like, you know what? I'm going to fill up my fifteen minutes talking about naval architecture. Because this may be a story of intense relevance, immense pathos and profound mythic power, but it also has a cool boat in it. And I like boats, and I think that would be fun!
So I went and read the parsha all the way through, for the first time in years. And that Ark was completely different from how I remembered it. It was interesting, sure, but it was also…
Well, let's start by talking about the myth thing:
The Ark is a fascinating object to think about, but we have to keep in mind that everything we say about it has to be seen through the lens of mythic power and dreamlike logic, where things are the way they are for symbolic, meaningful reasons. The idea that this is a literal description of an actual ship is actually quite alien to much of Jewish tradition, and alien to the text of the Torah itself.
Just look at the contrast between Noah's story and the Tower of Babel which follows. The latter is written in a high literary style, filled with wordplay and sarcasm and deliberate irony. The former is transparently cut together from two separate texts which merge unevenly and contradict one another from one verse to the next.
I don't think this is a mistake. It's a deliberate choice, collapsing logic and chronology and character into a complex, unreal narrative.
We can see the traces of this mythological reading in the deliberations of the Talmudists. Some things they pick over in endless detail, others… eh. For example: the earth was washed out, every green thing known to humans stripped away.
So where did the olive branch come from?
The rabbis don't care! That doesn't matter to the point they see in the story. They want the flood to be a myth, where Noah becomes every person, an avatar for flawed humanity, where G'd becomes a character, able to reason, and observe, and regret.
You don't see this anywhere more clearly than the scene that takes place after they leave the Ark. It seems, in the text, as if G'd hasn't really decided what to do, but then Noah burns a sacrificial offering, which seems to G'd to have 'sweet savour'. That moment, where G'd realises the score, realises what She'll do, is written as a masterpiece of contrast and paradox: intimate and grandiose, grotesque and hopeful.
Here, every second word seems to be 'blood' or 'flesh' or 'guilt', but even in that febrile tone, the content of G'd's speech is to assert the rule of humane law. Most pertiently, humans must not kill one another, because we were created in G'd's image — from here, the Medieval Italian commentator Obadja Sforno draws the lesson that the "divine attribute" that makes murder against us unacceptable, is our independent intelligence: our ability to think and imagine (Sforno on Genesis 9:6:2).
Look around you. All those people have vast worlds in their heads just as complex as the world outside. To kill a person is to destroy a private and beautiful universe. To destroy an image of G'd.
And G'd will follow that same Commandment: She promises that She will not destroy the world that She created. But again, contrast: listen to how She describes that choice to forswear our destruction: "I will not again curse the ground any more for humanity's sake; for the imagination of the human heart is evil from its youth."
I mean, what? She's going to save us because we're evil?
The rabbis explain that what G'd is realising here is not that we are bad, but that we carry within us, in addition to our good intentions, an 'evil inclination', a 'yetzer hara'. Without this dark side to our characters, we would have no impetus to strive, achieve, grow, compete.
As it is written in Midrash Bereshit Rabbah (9:7): "Can then the Evil Desire be very good? That would be extraordinary! But without the Evil Desire, however, one would not build a house, marry, beget children, or engage in business."
Without this impetus we would, moreover, be effortlessly good, and if good is effortless that makes it meaningless. Only a sacrifice has 'sweet savour'. Or else it's just a burning cow.
This is a very human chain of logic which creates, for this specific narrative, a human-like G'd to whom we can relate and who is imagined as sharing (remember She just blew up the world), imagined as sharing our yetzer hara — exactly as we share Her divine nature.
In this story, that old duality between the holiness and darkness of humankind isn't a duality — it's a package deal. There can be no… separation between them.
But G'd isn't the only character. The Flood is a kind of character in this story, and the Ark, elaborately described, is also a character.
Most of us have a really clear image, in our heads, of Noah's Ark because, while this story does involve mass slaughter on an unimaginable scale, it also has animals which makes it great for kids. So we have this picture from childhood: a boat-shapped hull with a keel, carvel-built with symmetrical ends, rounded stems, some kind of deck-house running almost the length of the ship. Maybe fifty-sixty metres from end to end, so you can get lions and whole vessel in the same picture. There's a door in the side which, indecently is the only element the picture we have in our heads has in common with the ship described in the Torah.
The Ark in the Torah is huge: nightmarishly big! At least 30% longer and five times heavier than the biggest wooden ship known to history. If you plunked it down in Harbord Street it wouldn't quite fit between this building and the Athletic Centre opposite. Let's say one end of that ship is just outside this window, the other end is just about level with the far side of Robarts Library over there. It isn't going to be neat or boat-shaped either. There's no reason to make the Ark's hull hydrodynamically efficient; it isn't going anywhere! In fact, if you read the Hebrew, G'd doesn't say "make thee an ark" She says "aseh lecha tevah", "make thee a box", so we can imagine something pretty crude and box-like…
with interior spaces as nightmarishly cavernous as the ship is nightmarishly huge. The Torah specifies that the Ark had three interior decks, making the interstitial interior spaces, on average, something like four and a half metres high. So standing inside the Ark would be something like standing in the hanger deck of an aircraft carrier, if an aircraft carrier wreaked of pitch and fear and animal waste.
Now when I first read all this, there was something about those three decks that didn't make sense to me — and not just the impractical scale or the fact that lack of internal structure would leave it with the structural integrity of a damp cardboard box. That's ok, it's a mythical ship!
No, it's something else: According to the Talmud, the rabbis taught that the top deck was to be reserved for Noah's family, the mid-deck for the animals, and the bottom deck the enormous quantity of animal dung that would be produced during their year long voyage. Now, I don't know how much experience the Tannaim had going to sea, but in my understanding one doesn't dedicate too much effort to storing feces when there's, you know, the sea right there.
But no, they had a reason. I think that the rabbis understood the Ark as having a particular quality that I'd never read in any other source that, when I understood it, at first seemed kind of creepy, then quite moving, then about as deep as you can go.
I think the rabbis understood the Ark as being sealed. Hermetically sealed.
Let's talk text: the very same page of Talmud that describes the (ahem) poop deck tell us that the 'light' (tsohar) Noah was commanded to build into the Ark wasn't a window (as most people read it), but an array of precious, light-emitting gems. No opening in the hull, which was sealed.
Then there's Noah's strange reluctance to look outside. In Chapter 8 the Ark runs aground on the peak of Mt Ararat on the seventeenth day of the seventh month. Then, we are very specifically told, they wait almost four months before they look outside. All that time, not knowing whether they sat at the summit of a mountain or the floor of a valley, and nobody dares crack a window.
And as we read this, we think back to Chapter 7, verse 16, when the flood is rising and the Ark is closed. And it wasn't Noah or his crew, or his band of helpful monkeys (I'm assuming they had helpful monkey friends, if that isn't a midrash it should be), it wasn't any of those people who shut the door but, "v'yisgor Adonai ba'ado": "and Adonai shut them in". The Ark was sealed from the outside, by G'd.
When you think about it, the entire project of the flood was predicated on the sealing of the Ark. The world is, somehow, in some way, bad. So you take a sliver of good and pass it through the deluge to the better, simpler world to come. But the deluge is worse than bad, the deluge is a hot hell that cracks the mind, withers the soul and pollutes purity totally.
So you need the Ark to be sealed. You need an enclosed refuge that separates the holy sanctuary of the survivors from the profane horrors outside. The closedness of the Ark is a necessary component of the plan. It's also, rather touching I think, to think of G'd closing the door Himself to spare them that choice, to spare them from complicity, to spare them the horror of seeing their neighbours drown.
And it doesn't work. The inmates of the Ark stumble out into a world every bit as complex as the one they left. Practically the first thing Noah does is plant vines to get as drunk as humanly possible. It hasn't worked, and in that moment, as Noah makes his sacrifice, the character of G'd can see why.
We are created in G'd image. Like G'd we have worlds inside our heads. And like G'd, our imagination cannot be circumscribed.
Just as you can't seal Shabbat from what's going on outside those windows, sealing the Ark doesn't work. We are not animals, who can be shut up in a box and rest incurious as to what is taking place on the other side of the wall. We are created in the image of the divine and that means we carry within ourselves that divine spark that makes us reach out in our imaginations and touch horrors sealed away from us by walls of gopher wood and gulfs of time alike.
And that evil impulse, to reach out and touch horror, that's what makes us good. Because imagine what it would have been had Noah been eager to throw open the shutters and breathe the fresh breezes of a wrecked world. If he'd skipped lightly down the ramp and offered not a heavy sacrifice, but a "bright and selfish song" of joy. A happy animal. A merry monster.
In that moment, observing that sacrifice, G'd the character has seen all these things. And because in this dreamlike world of myth G'd the character also somehow gets to be a universal force at the same time, her statements also get to be universal statements of the laws of nature. The Ark has to be sealed, first by commandment, and then by G'd and then by Noah, so the humane message could be hammered home: you are in the world; you are the world; to kill another person is to kill the whole world. You are creators, like G'd; you are complex and flawed, as is G'd's universe; yes, you can try to cut evil from the world, but you'll need a cruel and bloody knife.
Ok, I'm sorry, maybe I'm lying to you. Maybe this is a little about the election in the States — maybe we can't put a seal around Shabbat and stop the real world from leaking in.
But it's not just about the election. I keep hearing the same things from the UK, from Cologne, Budapest, Athens, Ankara, from every corner of the world where people keep saying "burn it down and start again: the system's rigged, there's no hope for the future, smash it and start over. Sure there'll be chaos, but after they're gone, we'll be able to build it right."
And all of these people, in the heart of them, think the same thing: when the flood comes, they'll be sealed in a nice, safe, comfy boat.
I wish those people would go read Noach, read it the whole way through. I wish they'd note the absence of that tidy wooden boat with its happy animals and smiling, bearded Noah on the upper deck that never was described in Torah. That they'd see, instead, the nightmare ship: cavernous and stinking and black with pitch. That they'd know the revulsion of the trapped captain, his skin crawling with fear and complicity. That they'd remember, as G'd remembered Noah, the wisdom of that ancient covenant, made for the dawn of a new and broken world: that each side must see itself in the other, and the other in itself.
That you can build a wall of gopher wood. And you can make it tall, and strong, and terrible to behold. But it's never going to be so tall that the heavens can't vault over it, or so broad that the human soul can't pass through. You can shut yourself in a box, as tight and airless as you like, but it's never going to be so dark that the human imagination can't make it glass.
You can build yourself a prison and demand the deluge stays outside. But eventually you'll realise that barriers are illusions. And you'll open the door and find, outside, the friendly sky and the many faces of your fellow human beings. And shining bright, in both of them, will be a rainbow.