Frederick L. Klein

Noah: When Our Hopes and Dreams are Drowned into the Abyss 

Image courtesy of Pixabay (

When a child is born there is so many hopes and dreams. We project our desires onto the future generation, and we hope they will work to create a better world than now. This should be the way of the world.

More than any other character in the Torah, Noah signals this. For ten generations the people had toiled, paying the price of being banished from Eden. Something is special about this child, special enough that people look at him and exclaim “this one will bring us comfort (yenachemeinu) from our work and the toil of our hands from the earth which was cursed by God” (Gen. 5:29, alluding to 3:21). While many of the commentaries note that technically the root for comfort (n-h-m) is different than Noah’s name (n-w-h), which means to rest, thematically the two words are interrelated.[1]  Adam and Eve had sinned, and the one idyllic world became a world of suffering and struggle, a world of endless toiling the land with uncertain ends (Genesis Ch. 3). Noah somehow was to work towards solving the human dilemma by giving a moments rest; this was to be the comfort. Sadly, Noah was unsuccessful.  The world becomes so corrupt, that God reconsiders having created the world in the first place. “And God regretted (va-yenachem) having created the human being.”  Tragically, the dreams of Noah being a source of comfort (nechama) yields to God regretting (va-yenachem) having created humanity in the first place. The world is decreed for destruction. The entire known world – all life- will be reduced to an ark.

The descriptions of the flood itself are not merely physical descriptions but portray a landscape in which there is no rest, no place to land one’s feet. The Torah tells us that ‘the fountains of the deep burst apart, and the floodgates of the sky broke open” (Genesis 7:11). On the second day of creation, God subdues the watery abyss preparing for life, separating the waters above and below; here the world returns to the primordial abyss.[2]  The waters cover the highest mountains, the waters swell, and the ark floats aimlessly on the surface of the water (Gen. 7:18).

However, the Torah is not simply describing the physical world, but it is painting a psychological portrait. Human beings have degraded themselves so much, filling the world with so much violence (the word ironically used is hamas), that the world has lost the capacity for any type of settlement, of menucha. God’s destruction seen in this way is the physical manifestation of what human beings have already done to one another, by creating a world that is so violent and abusive, that the very notion of society and settlement becomes an impossibility. The events of the past few weeks have the capacity to darken our vision about the potential of humanity to actually thrive in this world. As Jews in particular, we feel adrift. We might feel like the ark floating upon the chaotic deeps, rudderless. Horrific events compounding one after another, ‘and the water became overpowering’, darkens our hopes and dreams. Where do we go from here? How does one navigate without points of light or land? Where is the safe haven, the shore? Will the waters envelope us as well? When Noah was on that boat, what did he feel? The Torah does not say, but I can only guess forty days of pure terror, as he heard the commotion outside, the gopher wood buckling under the pressure of the water, and the screams of the creatures drowning outside. [3]

Yet, Noah’s name does imply a deeper promise for respite, for menucha. It is true that Noah could not prevent the disaster, but the ark of his hands ultimately does find a place of rest on the Mountain of Ararat (Va-Tanakh Ha-Hateivah).  Still, even then the waters are covering everything. He opens the ark windows and finds nothing left, nothing from the world he once knew.  However, Noah does not close the windows and retreat. He knows there is ground, even if it is not dry land.  Perhaps there is dry land elsewhere.

It is at this juncture that Noah takes action, and actively looks for signs of rebirth in order to rebuild. He sends out three doves, a Yonah. The Torah again plays on the linguistic similarity of the word and Noah’s name, as if to claim the bird is a surrogate for Noah himself.[4]

On the first reconnaissance mission the dove returns empty handed, ‘being unable to find a place to rest (manoach) it’s feet’. The physical flood has ended, but the impacts have continued. Psychologically, traumas have the capacity to live on long after the events have ended.[5] Even if the boat has found rest, the creatures, and indeed Noah himself have not. They must wait ‘seven days’, the fundamental cycle of biblical time representing creation itself.

Noah then sends out the bird again, but this time there is a glimmer of a future, a glimmer of hope. The dove returns with an olive branch in its beak, and Noah knows “the waters have begun to recede” (Gen. 7:11). Hope has begun to sprout again. The Midrash cites a beautiful tradition that the dove found this branch from the Garden of Eden (Lev. Rabba 31:10). Could the dove have taken this branch from the tree of life itself? The dove, and by extension Noah himself, tries to remember that idyllic world, the world before suffering, before the destruction. He sees no Garden of Eden but can smell its aroma in the scent of the olive branch. Yet, even now, Noah must wait another seven days, another cycle of time.

On the third reconnaissance mission, the dove no longer returns. The implication is that the dove has found a new home to begin to rebuild. Soon after, God tells him to emerge from the ark, as the earth has dried. He emerges and sacrifices to God. The sweet smell, the re’ach nichoach (again a linguistic play on Noah’s name), and the covenant of the rainbow is revealed. God blesses humanity again, even as God recognizes their deep flaws. Hope again sprouts in the midst of a barren world waiting to be reborn.

A popular piyyut (liturgical poem), attributed to Yehudah Halevi (c. 1075-1141), is read on the day of Shabbat, during the midday meal. The news of peace and rest provided by the dove is compared to the peace and rest of the Shabbat, a moment seen beyond time, a taste of the world to come.

יוֹם שַׁבָּתוֹן אֵין לִשְׁכּֽוֹחַ, זִכְרוֹ כְּרֵֽיחַ הַנִּיחֹֽחַ,
יוֹנָה מָצְאָה בוֹ מָנֽוֹחַ, וְשָׁם יָנֽוּחוּ יְגִֽיעֵי כֹֽחַ

Fragrant thy memories,​ O sweet Sabbath day,
Fragr​ant as incense, never to fade away;
The wandering​​​​​ dove does find her nest
In You, the toilers cease their weary quest[6]

Every shabbat is an opportunity to experience a world of spiritual elevation, of release from worry, and renewed community. The poet in the last stanza turns to the Jewish people, suffering from oppression; like Noah, the Jewish people cannot find rest!

הָעָם אֲשֶׁר נָע כַּצֹּאן תָּעָה,

יִזְכּוֹר לְפָקְדוֹ בְּרִית וּשְׁבוּעָה
לְבַל יַעֲבָר בָּם מִקְרֵה רָעָה,

כַּאֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּֽעְתָּ עַל מֵי נֹֽחַ

The people who have wandered like lost sheep (Israel)

You (God) should remember the covenant and oath you gave them

-that ill should not befall them

As you swore (following) the waters of Noah[7]

On the day of Shabbat, the day of respite, we implore God to remember the promise of restoration given to Noah following the flood, and to remember God’s covenanted people who are like Noah, displaced on the raging seas. Bring the Jewish people home again.

We are experiencing global and tectonic shifts in both Jewish and human history. In all honesty, it is hard to see the future ahead. Nonetheless, our parashah does give us comfort and rest, in the knowledge that in time we will rise again. If Noah is an example to us, it is that we cannot always prevent despair, but we need to constantly send out reconnaissance doves, looking to rebuild. At the same time, the parashah is realistic, in describing the times in which we will try to find hope… and then fail.  We will then need to wait and try again. Noah carried the world through a devastating time, but perhaps his true heroism was not to enter the ark, but to come out of the ark at all. Our generation has experienced those scarred people, survivors from the abyss, stepping out and audaciously rebuilding, the ultimate testimony of the unbreakable spirit of the Jewish people. We need to remind ourselves- again and again and again- of this truth.

The Jewish people in our history know what it means to emerge from the ark after destruction. It is the key to Jewish history.

We will prevail.

Am Yisrael Chai and Shabbat Shalom.

[1] Rashi states that the name should be Menachem and not Noach, and that yenachemeinu is a conjunction of yenach memenu– to provide rest.

[2] This reflects an ancient near easter conception of the universe, in which water exists both under the earth and above the heavens.

[3] The film Noah starring Russel Crowe, far from a simple ‘faithful’ retelling of the Biblical epic, portrays Noah wracked with survivors guilt, and so consumed with the despair of humanity attempts to finish the job God began by trying to kill off the next generation of his own family.   The Biblical Noah is almost laconic, but it is interesting that one of the first things he does when he leaves the ark is plant a vineyard and drink himself into a stupor.  This is not a portrait of the righteous man in the beginning, and it seems that while he may not have drowned physically, the trauma of the events overwhelmed him to the extent that he wanted to drink himself into oblivion.

[4] The text also says he send out a raven, which presents many critical problems.  See The Motif of Releasing Birds in ANE Flood Stories –

[5] The same phrase, lo matza manoach, is invoked by Jeremiah following the destruction of the Temple (Lamentations 1:3).

[6] Adaptive translation by Trans​lation by Herbert Loewe, Mediae​val Hebrew Minstrels​y, Songs for the Bride Queen’s Feast​, published​ 1926. Cited on View Song: Yom Shabbaton יוֹם שַבָּתוֹן (

[7] My translation

About the Author
Fred Klein is Director of Mishkan Miami: The Jewish Connection for Spiritual Support, and serves as Executive Vice President of the Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami. In this capacity he oversees Jewish pastoral care support for Miami’s Jewish Community, train volunteers in friendly visiting and bikkur cholim, consult with area synagogues in creating caring community, and organize conferences on spirituality, illness and aging. As director of the interdenominational Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami, Fred provides local spiritual leadership with a voice in communal affairs. He has taught at and been involved with the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, Drisha Institute for Jewish Education, Hebrew College of Boston, the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School, CLAL– The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, and the Shalom Hartman Institute. He is Vice President for the Rabbinic Cabinet of the Jewish Federations of North America, former Chair of the Interfaith Clergy Dialogue of the Miami Coalition of Christians and Jews, and formerly served on the Board of the Neshama: the Association of Jewish Chaplains.
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