As the world gradually descends into lockdown, I’m reminded more and more of Noah’s Ark. Not simply from the parallel of time spent in shelter from a global crisis, but for the opportunity to deepen our relationships and to nurture the fabric of our families.
In recent days, many psychologists and health experts have voiced concerns about the impact of extended self-isolation on marriage and family life. As we spend an increasing amount of time with each other, without external distraction or outlet, personal space may shrink, annoying habits may become more visible, anxiety about our safety and financial stress can cause us to become irritable or to withdraw, and panic can make us irrational. Not only is there genuine concern for a spike in domestic and family violence, but COVID-19 may prove to be the ultimate stress test for even the most stable and happy relationship.
The story of Noah’s Ark shares the same challenges we face today. Humanity facing an existential threat, instructions to shelter-in-place, and the mental health challenge of extreme isolation. According to the Medrash, however, Noah’s story came with one more hurdle. G-d instructed that the time in the Ark be spent in social distance: each couple were to spend the entire year without physical touch. Imagine, watching the world collapse outside your window, the darkness of night only fading into the bleakness of day, without the comfort of embracing a loved one.
But, without physical touch, something else happened in the Ark. Each couple were compelled to find a way to share support, give comfort, and express love in a different way. When Noah was bitten by an enraged lion, his wife’s empathy – not her embrace – comforted him. When his wife grew despondent, Noah’s companionship – not his embrace – eased the loneliness. As couples, and as a family, they learned to love and care for each other with a different language, expressing comfort and affection with their hearts and their words. Instead of holding each other’s hand, they held each other’s feelings, needs, and concerns.
When the storm abated, and Noah, his wife, his sons, and daughters-in-law finally exited the Ark, the Torah used a new word for the first time – family. Because, while in the depths of their isolation, amid the dread and grief of witnessing the devastation of a world they once knew, they discovered the secret to a healthy relationship and a loving home.
And so, there are parallel lessons for our time.
As the weeks roll on and the world remains sheltered in place; as the fear and anxiety bleed from news headlines into our hearts, our relationships face a challenge they may not have confronted before. We will all cope with stress and crisis differently, and we all have different opinions of how we and others should respond to this pandemic. We might become unbearably optimistic or we might become uncomfortably fatalistic. We might turn to faith or we might feel betrayed.
Yet, to nourish and strengthen our relationship and family through this time, we will need to speak the language first heard in Noah’s Ark – a language of empathy and communication. Be prepared that your partner, or sibling, child, or parent may not agree with you. That doesn’t mean that they are wrong. Instead, try to really listen to what is being said, because beneath their words there is likely a raw and fragile emotion, reaching out for love and comfort.