Few stories capture the human imagination the way Noah his Ark does. Human depravity reaches an intolerable peak to the extent that God decides He had it with humanity. The story seems simple and sleight forward:
“Now the earth was corrupt before God, and the earth became full of robbery. And God saw the earth, and behold it had become corrupted, for all flesh had corrupted its way on the earth. And God said to Noah, “The end of all flesh has come before Me, for the earth has become full of robbery because of them, and behold I am destroying them from the earth.” (Genesis 6)
Society lost its right to exist, and God was about to do exactly that; He was going to destroy society we know it. This is not the only time we see such a prospect. When the people of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19) sin, God destroys them too. When the Egyptians go too far, God sinks them in the Red Sea. The people of Nineveh narrowly escape a similar fate. Yet, the method here is stranger than all, specifically, the Ark. God tells Noa:
“Make for yourself an ark of gopher wood; you shall make the Ark with compartments, and you shall caulk it both inside and outside with pitch…. And I, behold I am bringing the flood, water upon the earth, to destroy all flesh in which there is the spirit of life, from beneath the heavens; all that is upon the earth will perish. And I will set up My covenant with you, and you shall come into the Ark, you and your sons, and your wife and your sons’ wives with you.”
Why the Ark?
Was there no better way to make sure Noa has sparred the fate of the rest of his generation, perhaps in a way similar to the way God rescued Lot, Abraham’s nephew from the fate the people of Sodom and Gomorrah? Why not just extract Noah and his family from the site of the strike and let him live on happily ever after?
Rashi, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki(Genesis 6:14) our greatest commentator, addressing this difficulty cites the Midrash to explain the matter positively:
“Make for yourself an ark: Many ways to bring relief and rescue are available to Him; why, then, did He burden him 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, “The Holy One, blessed be He, is destined to bring a flood upon the world.” Perhaps they would repent. ”
Building the Ark, in this view, was an act of social protest. It was a way of letting the world know what they are doing will bring to their own ultimate demise. It was a public show of disapproval—which also included an outright warning—letting the generation know there are going down the wrong path.
This, though, still does not explain why Noah had to spend a full year (!) in the Ark, why he needed to spend that much time feeding the animals, nor does it explain the long process of disembarking from the Ark.
Meir Simcha of Devinsk (1843–1926), in his magnum opus Meshech Chochmah commentary on the Torah, shines a beautiful light on this topic.
At the chore of all sin in the generation of the flood, was the sin of selfishness. People were self-centered to the extent they were willing to trample on anyone that got in their way. Theft, adultery, and even murderer all became legitimate means towards fulfilling one’s own desires. Nothing could stand in people’s way to satisfy their own wants and needs. These were not isolated episodes, it was the way humanity was operating. Things have reached a breaking point. Humans forgot what they are all about, so much so that there was a need to reprogram humanity. This is where the Ark comes into the picture.
The Ark was not just a means towards an end of saving Noah and his family, the Ark was an end onto itself. The Ark was a training camp, rebranding and reshaping what being human is all about. During all those hours of caring for the animals, attending to others, and recognizing the need to be there for others, humans learned again that to be human means to give; to be human means to care. “For I said, “the world will it be built with kindness; as the heavens, with which You will establish Your faithfulness.” (Psalm 89)
Humanity needed to take a year with meager supplies, little time for physical indulgences, and extraordinary amounts of time dedicated to helping others.
I recall the days I was studying in Beth Medrash Govoha in Lakewood, New Jersey. Despite having differing world outlooks than many of the people I encountered there, I could not help admiring their commitment and dedication to the Torah, and its study. On Saturday morning after lengthy prayers and an elaborate learning session, students gathered for their Shabbat meal, a meal in which we got to hear thoughtful ideas on the weekly Parasha. On the week of Parashat Noach, I got to listen to the dean, Rabbi Yerucham Olshin, elaborate on this very point.
Rabbi Olshin went on to explain how the above is the reason there was a need for an explicit commandment for Noah to exit the Ark.
“and in the second month, on the twenty-seventh day of the month, the earth was dry. And God spoke to Noah saying: “Go out of the Ark, you and your wife, and your sons, and your sons’ wives with you. Every living thing that is with you of all flesh, of fowl, and of animals and of all the creeping things that creep on the earth, bring out with you, and they shall swarm upon the earth, and they shall be fruitful and multiply upon the earth.” So Noah went out, and his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives with him.” (Genesis, chapter 8)
Even though the land dried, even though the Ark was on solid ground, Noah waited for God’s commandment to exit. Why? If the Ark were just means towards being rescued, this would indeed make no sense. Why wait to exit the Ark? The Ark though was much more than a means to being saved; it was a place to rebrand humanity, a place to reconsider what being human is all about.
“Man Was Not Created For Himself, But Only To Help Others”, states the great Rabbi Chaim Ickovits of Volozhin (1749 – 1821) in his mystic work Nefesh HaChaim. This is the lesson Noah needed to learn and spent a year intensively internalizing while on the Ark.
The great American actor Edward Albert said once “Sometimes you have to be selfish to be selfless.” The lesson of Noah and the Ark is that sometimes, you need to be selfless to really be human. In a world so dedicated to ourselves, so internally focused, that we sometimes forget about others, let us make a point to learn the lesson of the Ark, the lesson of being there for others.