Weekly Torah: Noach

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queen_of_alberni_475wHow Big Was Noah’s Ark? (5777/2016)

How big was Noah’s ark?

Torah is very specific: 300 cubits long, 50 cubits wide, and 30 cubits high.

A cubit measures the distance from a person’s elbow to the tip of her middle finger, for a human average of about 18 inches.

So, the ark was 450 feet long, 75 feet wide, and 45 feet high. Or, about 137 meters long, 23 meters wide, and 14 meters high.

Which makes it just about the size of the BC Ferries boat Queen of Alberni. The Queen of Alberni has room for 1200 passengers, 290 cars, a restaurant, gift shop, children’s play area, pet play area, video game room, work study stations, elevators and accessible washrooms.

That’s a fun thought, isn’t it? Perhaps Noah’s ark had room for 50 small-but-livable animal habitats, each housing multiple species; generous human living quarters; food growing and storage areas; a kitchen; children’s play area; staircases and more.

The Queen of Alberni is a big boat, and not so easy to pilot. In its 40-year history of sailing with skilled captains and crews, it has run aground, smashed into a dock, collided with another ship, and weathered a terrible storm. Property was damaged, humans were injured, and a horse died.

That’s a sobering thought, isn’t it? Perhaps Noah’s ark, afloat for 380 days with an inexperienced crew, had its share of mishaps, too. Perhaps humans were injured. Perhaps animals died. Perhaps stairs or ceilings collapsed.

What an adventure, what a leap of faith, what a commitment! Surely the family knew they would grieve their friends and former life. But did they imagine the creativity that lay ahead? The fun? The challenge? The risks?

How does this dimension of the story live in you? When you look ahead to impending change, what do you see? Grief, creativity, challenge or risk? How does your perspective help you prepare?

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Words as Skylights (2012/5773)

Tzohar ta’aseh la-teivah – Make a skylight for the ark – Bereisheet/Genesis 6:16.

The Ba’al Shem Tov points out that the word teivah means not just “ark” but also “word.” Taking this phrase out of context, he reads it as a teaching about prayer. As you pray from the Siddur, he teaches, make sure each word has a skylight. Allow each word to open you up towards the heavens.

We can use words of the Siddur as skylights in many ways.

We can choose to pray slowly enough to savour the meanings of words, accepting them as an invitation to reflect on our theology.

We can set the words to music, and allow the music revealed by each word to lift us out of everyday consciousness.

We can remember the teaching that God created the world through speech. As we speak the Siddur’s poetry, we can wonder at the cosmic power of breath used to create meaning.

We can connect the building of the ark at the beginning of the parsha with the building of Migdal Bavel, the Tower of Babel, later in the parsha. The tower’s builders try to create a unified structure that can lead them step by step to heaven. But suddenly, they discover that they do not all use words in the same way. And the unified structure fails to bring them to heaven.

Words of Torah naturally have skylights. Each word is open to multiple interpretations, and each word can bring us to multiple illuminations. These words cannot be used to build a single, unified path to spiritual awareness. Rather, as life raises existential questions, these words allow paths to open up beneath our feet again and again.

Allow yourself to name one of this week’s pressing questions, and let the words you choose be a skylight for you. May blessings illuminate your Shabbat.

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Noah’s Pet Ark: A Learning Curve (2011/5772)

Recently, a new small animal came under my care: a friendly, curious little newt, with a bright red belly. I knew nothing about newt care, so I went to Noah’s Pet Ark. Graham, who owns this local business, advised me to buy some frozen bloodworms. The newt opened his mouth wide and ate right off a fork.

So often creatures, animal or human, wander into our lives, and we don’t know anything about how to care for them. We don’t always have a Graham who gives us the resources to begin. We don’t always live near a Noah’s Pet Ark whose mission is to provide safe passage through life’s storms. We only have ourselves: our yearning to help, sandwiched between our over-commitments.

Early rabbinic tradition focuses on what Noah didn’t do. He was, critics say, an inferior righteous man. When God told Avraham that God would destroy the wicked city of Sodom, Avraham bargained to save lives. But when God told Noah that God would destroy the wicked world of humanity, Noah did not argue.

The Biblical text portrays Noach more positively. God informs Noah of the coming flood, directing him to build the ark and save the animals. Noah immediately focuses on the task set before him: to build the Pet Ark and save the animals. He does not know enough yet about his diverse group of charges, but he plans to get right to work and learn on the job.

Noah is doing his best, and today, I take my inspiration from him.

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Crow & Raven: Earth-Based Torah (5771/2010)

In Magic of the Ordinary, Rabbi Gershon Winkler describes ancient Judaism as an aboriginal, earth-based religion. Biblical stories and practices emphasize the symbolism of animals, plants, and orientation on the land. Ancient Jews understood these teachings, many of which are lost to us.

In Spell of the Sensuous, Dr. David Abram teaches that great mythological stories are tied to specific places. Only in a natural environment can we understand the sights, sounds, and animal behaviors that give meaning to the story.

The story of Noach, Naamah, and the ark full of animals escaping the flood reminds us that we share planet earth with many other species, and all of us sink or swim together. And the more we honor our fellow creatures, the more we understand Torah’s teachings. For example:

Noach sent out the orev (raven or crow) and it went back and forth until the water had dried up. He then sent out the yonah (dove), and it returned toward evening, and there was a freshly plucked olive leaf in its beak. (from Bereisheet/Genesis 8:7-11)

Close watchers of orev and yonah will understand why Noach chose each for a special mission. In his natural setting, orev flies out to work daily, and returns to his large flock to debrief the day. He speaks a language similar to human language (that biologists are now learning). Noach could reply on him for a report. In her natural setting, yonah has a good sense of direction, and gathers nesting materials from the ground. Noach could rely on her to find dry ground, forage, and bring home her pickings.

We are accustomed to finding the origins of key Jewish values in the Torah, and environmentalism is no exception! What a great reminder from Parshat Noach!

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Noah and Isaiah: Images of Renewal (5770/2009)

Today we read an oracle of comfort from the Prophet Yishayah (Isaiah), offered to Jews returning to Yerushalyim from the Babylonian exile. Two metaphors of renewal and return leap out from the text. A husband who regrets separating from his wife apologizes for his anger and asks her to come back to him, promising to love her forever. A woman who has not given birth to children is told that she will raise many children.

Yishayah’s audience would have understood these metaphors immediately. The suffering of the Israelites is over; the angry judgmental face of God showed for a moment, but God’s loving face is re-emerging. It’s safe to reconnect spiritually and to return to religious practice. The city of Yerushalayim, a spiritual mother bereft of her children for decades, should open itself to welcome and help resettle Jewish refugees from Babylonia.

This oracle complements Parshat Noach in several beautiful ways. One is historical: Yishayah explicitly compares the promise of eternal love and safety that God makes to the returning Jews with the promise God made to Noach, that the earth would never again be destroyed by flood. Another is ethical: taken together, the Torah and Haftorah readings offer two models of righteousness. Noach protects his family. The city of Yerushalayim reaches out to the many who need a spiritual and political home.

The message? Both types of action are necessary to make sure that the world endures in love and safety.

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Righteous in His Generation (5768/2007)

“These are the records of Noach. He was a righteous, perfect man in his generation.” (Genesis/Bereisheet 6:9)

These are the opening words of the story of Noach, whose family survives the great flood that wipes out the rest of humanity. As the story unfolds, we learn that “his generation” is a generation of wicked, violent people – so bad that  even God, their creator, wants to get rid of them. So, what does the Torah mean when it says Noach was perfect “in his generation” – in a wicked, violent generation?

Our most famous commentators offer a range of answers. Some say the Torah means that Noach was so righteous, he even behaved well when everyone around him behaved terribly. Others say Torah means the opposite — Noach was not righteous by today’s standards, but only relative to his awful generation. Still others say that Noach must have been the exemplar for his generation. He did good deeds, taught, counseled and corrected his contemporaries.

So many different standards for righteousness! Is “better than others” good enough? Must we have strong principles and stick to them unwaveringly no matter what the context? Must we always be looking out for the moral growth of others as well as ourselves? By which standard should we judge ourselves? Or others?  Should we apply higher standards to ourselves or to others? One ambiguous verse leads to a flood of questions!

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Noah’s Wife: Naamah (5767/2006)

The Torah mentions Noah’s wife five times – but only by the common noun “his wife,” never by her own name. This puzzled our ancient sages.  After all, the wife of Noah is the mother of all living human beings!  Surely the Torah calls her by name.

So the sages did some genealogical research using the text of the Torah.  Seth and Cain are named as the two surviving children of Adam and Eve.  The last person of Seth’s line is his great, great, great, great, great grandson Noah.  The last person of Cain’s line is his great, great, great, great, great granddaughter Naamah.  Bingo!  These two, said the sages, must be the founders of the next branch in the human family tree.

The Torah says that Noah is saved from the flood because he is righteous. Is Naamah saved only because Noah loves her?  No, said the sages. The name “Naamah” means “pleasing.”  Naamah’s deeds are pleasing – i.e., righteous.  Thus she is specifically chosen to be the mother of all human beings.

What does Naamah do on the ark?  The Torah tells us that Naamah’s half-brother is the world’s first musician. Naamah, says Rabbi Juliet Spitzer, plays music on the ark to calm the animals.  The Torah also tells us that the ark has a skylight.  According to Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, God has given Naamah a task of her own: to collect the planet’s plants and care for them in the greenhouse under the skylight.

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