Noah’s Ark in COVID

In most years, the story of Noah and the flood feels overly distant and unrelatable. Living in the comforts of the modern world, it’s hard to imagine a time of such instability and destruction as in the days of Noah — but this year is anything but normal. Over a million people have been killed by COVID-19. With cases rising worldwide, the existential anxiety and dread is real. The world is actually falling deeper into the abyss. The flood is already here. The water is rising. Suddenly, I feel a deep kinship to Noah. 

His story is now our story. His time in the ark was the first quarantine in human history. Floating through raging waters in darkness, the future was beyond uncertain. Feel familiar? He wondered, “When will the waters recede? When will the dove find dry land?” We’re now asking, “When will the spikes stop? When will the vaccine be found?”  

 Noah’s legacy is complicated within rabbinic literature. He is righteous but only for his generation. The sages look down upon him because he failed to challenge God’s plan to destroy the world. His silence is deafening, especially when compared to the likes of Abraham and Moses. Remember, Abraham fought for the hateful citizens of Sodom and Moses for the sinners of the golden calf. 

The rabbis were also not pleased by his actions around leaving the ark. He was not interested in rebuilding the world that was lost. He grew comfortable in the ark and preferred to numb his pain by drinking. But can you really blame him? The man witnessed the downfall of the earth, the first holocaust. According to Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, when he felt the wine going to his head, he took refuge in the innermost part of his tent, where he could hope nobody would see him. He was ashamed of his depression. He wanted to shield his family from seeing his helplessness as they looked to him as a source of safety and inspiration. 

Sure, he wasn’t perfect but perhaps out of all years we can be more sympathetic towards him. We need to better understand the grief that arises after being surrounded by so much suffering and death. This should be a lesson for what is to come for us as we begin to open our own doors to a new world. 

I find myself wondering what Noah would think if he saw us today. What would he make of people refusing to wear masks? What would he say about people still gathering in large groups? I doubt he considered  jeopardizing the safety of his family by opening the doors and windows of the ark in the midst of the flood. What would he think about our government’s inability to give out further economic aid to the hungry? According to the Midrash, he actually fed his family and all the animals before he nourished himself. We’ve been quick to judge Noah, but now that we’re living through our own flood we actually have much to learn from his humility and vulnerability. Acknowledging the void that we all feel is perhaps the first step towards healing.

About the Author
Jonathan Leener is the rabbi of the Prospect Heights Shul in Brooklyn and is pursuing a master's degree in Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Yeshiva University
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