“Collision” Parashat Noach 5780

Parashat Noach begins with an in-depth look at the ark that would protect Noah, his family, and two of every animal from a deluge that would wipe out the world. In previous lessons, we have described the Torah’s comprehensive description of the Noah’s Ark as a “Requirements Specification”, a document that would make any engineer knowingly smile.

Rabbi Amnon Bazak, a rabbi at Yeshivat Har Etzion and a lecturer in the Bible and Oral Law Departments of Herzog College, notes that the only other location in the Torah where objects are described in similar depth is the section discussing the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and its utensils. Rabbi Bazak draws a number of parallels between the Requirements Specifications of Noah’s Ark and of the Ark of the Covenant[1]. For instance:

  • The dimensions (height, width, and depth) of both arks are accurately noted.
  • Both arks were made from wood. The Ark of the Covenant was made of acacia wood while Noah’s Ark was made of gopher wood.
  • The Ark of the Covenant [Shemot 25:11] was covered on both sides with gold while Noah’s Ark [Bereishit 6:14] was covered on both sides with pitch.
  • During the deluge, it rained for [Bereishit 7:12] “forty days and forty nights”. When Moses went up to heaven to receive the Ten Commandments that would reside in the Ark of the Covenant, he was gone for [Shemot 24:18] “forty days and forty nights”.

What can we learn from these similarities? Rabbi Bazak suggests that in both Noah’s Ark and the Ark of the Covenant, there occurred a direct interaction – a collision – between man and G-d. The entire purpose of the Mishkan was so that G-d [Shemot 25:8] “could reside in [man’s] midst”. While G-d is infinite, the Kabbalists explain that His Presence (shechina) “contracted” itself in order to reside within the finite Ark of the Covenant. So, too, during the deluge, did man come into direct contact with G-d’s presence. This time, however, it was not G-d Who contracted Himself, but rather, mankind, who contracted itself to within the boundaries of a boat, where it was protected from the elements by nothing but gopher wood and by G-d’s Grace. Rabbi Bazak writes, “With both the Ark of the Covenant and Noah’s Ark, contraction facilitated a special connection between G-d and His creation”. I would like to look at Rabbi Bazak’s explanation from a different perspective and by doing so, to try to shed some light on the events of the past two weeks.

Let me explain. This past Sukkot holiday in Israel was nothing less than  bizarre. On the first day of Sukkot, we experienced an oppressive heat wave. While Sukkot was preceded by lovely fall weather, as soon as the holiday began, the temperature spiked by about ten degrees Celsius to nearly forty degrees. It was oppressively hot inside the sukkah. But while our Sages do not force a person to remain in the sukkah when it is overly uncomfortable to do so[2], I know of no family in Moreshet who left their sukkah to eat inside their air-conditioned home. We turned up the fans, rolled up our sleeves, and ate in our sukkahs.

And then the winds started. When the weatherman warned of “high winds, especially in the northern mountains”, we in Moreshet knew to batten down the hatches. Topographically speaking, Moreshet is located on a sort of seam that funnels eastern winds into one hellish gale. The winds started up the first night of the holiday, chasing my son and my nephew from the sukkah where they were sleeping. By the time we sat down for lunch, most of the sukkahs in Moreshet had their s’chach[3] shaken and stirred to the point that they were rendered halachically unusable. Local rabbis[4] argued over the permissibility of repairing the sukkah by repositioning the s’chach. Eventually, by means of some halachic acrobatics, we found a way to resurrect a large portion of our sukkah and we were back in business.

And then the winds blew harder. On the second morning of Sukkot, we awoke to find that our sukkah had essentially no roof at all. It had been blown off. We made repairs and hurriedly ate while the howling wind repeatedly blew our s’chach to and fro. We knew that we would only be able to use our sukkah for a short period of time but we were undeterred.

And then the hurricane hit. We had gone out with the family to a village near Mount Tabor. The skies blackened, the winds began to howl and torrential rain began to fall. As we drove home, we saw large branches torn off of trees flying in the wind, some barely missing our car. A bolt of lightning set two trees ablaze. When we arrived home, we found the ruins of what used to be our sukkah. It looked almost like a toy, as if it had been picked up and forcefully slammed down. At the same time, the Hazut family were enjoying the holiday, bathing on a deserted beach near the southern town of Zikkim. They chose that particular beach so that they could bathe as a family without being surrounded by strangers in various stages of undress. Suddenly, massive bolts of lightning exploded all around. Asher Hazut, aged fourteen, sustained a direct hit. He died a few days later.

Our Sages in Tractate Sukkah [2:9] discuss the ramifications of rain falling on Sukkot preventing the performance of the commandment of living in the sukkah: “If rain fell, when may one be permitted to leave [the Sukkah]? When the porridge becomes spoiled. [Our Sages] made a parable. To what can this be compared? To a slave who comes to fill the cup for his master and [the master] poured a pitcher over [the slave’s] face”. What kind of metaphor is fitting for one being chased from his sukkah not only by rain but by shrieking winds and bolts of lightning? The answer is too disturbing to consider. When I saw the wreckage of what used to be our sukkah strewn over our back yard, I could almost hear G-d shouting, “I don’t want your sukkah!” as He smashed it again and again into the ground.

I was baffled and upset. Surely G-d was trying to tell us something. Surely there was a message that we needed to take away from this surreal Sukkot. I suggest that Rabbi Bazak can offer us a way forward. One of the primary motifs of the holiday of Sukkot is achieving an intimacy with G-d. For seven days, we leave the comforts of our home and we return to nature, living in a hut where we face the elements protected by nothing but G-d’s Grace. Indeed, the Kabbalists writing in the Zohar [Parashat Emor 103a] refer to the sukkah as “Tzila de-mehemnuta,”, literally “Under the shadow of faith”. We leave our homes particularly in the fall season, just as we gather the fruits of our labour from our fields, as if to proclaim that all that we have gathered and all that we are belongs not to us, but, rather, to Him. Our intimacy with G-d reaches its apex on the holiday of Shemini Atzeret, the day after Sukkot, a day on which, according to our Sages, the Jewish People are granted a private audience with G-d, where we celebrate our closeness, His Presence, and His Torah.

But all this closeness comes at a cost. The Torah tells of Aharon’s two sons, who on the day that the Mishkan is consecrated are struck down when they offer [Vayikra 9:25] “a strange fire before G-d”. The Book of Samuel describes how the Ark of the Covenant started to slide off a cart on which it is being transported. A man attempts to steady the Ark, whereupon G-d strikes him dead. When the High Priest would offer the incense in the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur, he would die if he was unworthy. This regularly occurred. The message is clear: Collision with the infinite requires great caution. This can explain the proximity of Sukkot to the High Holidays. For six weeks we repent, engage in introspection, and beg for atonement from our sins. After Yom Kippur, we pray that our preparation has elevated us to a spiritual level that will sustain us and protect us for eight days of intimacy with G-d. Sometimes, though, maybe we’re just not ready. While we really have no idea what happened this Sukkot, if it makes us work a little bit harder next year then it is a lesson well learned.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5780

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza.

[1] The most obvious similarity is that both are called Arks. However, as Rabbi Bazak writes in Hebrew, this point was missed. Noah’s Ark is called a “tayva” while the Ark of the Covenant is called an “aron”.

[2] A person who is “mitzta’er” – “suffering” – due to heat or rain is not required to eat inside the sukkah.

[3] S’chach covers the sukkah. It is typically made of bamboo sheets and date fronds.

[4] Specifically, my older son and my “mechutan” (daughter’s father-in-law).

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over twenty-five years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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