‘Raindrops keep falling on my head’ Parashat Noach 5783

Few topics in the Torah are as scientifically difficult as the global deluge comprehensively described in the Portion of Noach. There are so many physical and biological challenges consistent with a global flood that ostensibly wipes out the entire global human and animal population that many scientists posit that a person cannot be intellectually honest and believe that such a flood really occurred.

First and foremost, the geological strata do not contain evidence of any such flood. While sediment layers suggest that about 7,500 years ago, Mediterranean water flowed into the Black Sea, evidence of a global deluge is lacking. Further, assuming there was some kind of worldwide flood, how is it possible to explain the existence of fauna on remote islands in the Pacific? If all the living animals in the world were housed in Noach’s ark, which landed in southern Turkey, how did kangaroos find their way to Australia? For that matter, how did polar bears survive the sultry Middle-Eastern heat? Rabbi Gedaliah Nadel, who lived in Israel in the previous century, proposes in “B’Torato Shel Rav Gedaliah” that the flood was limited to the Middle East. While the rain fell over Mesopotamia for forty days and forty nights, wiping out the local flora and fauna, the Australians were experiencing fine weather.

What I personally find most scientifically problematic is how Noach, and only Noach, managed to survive the flood. Was there no-one else in the entire world who owned a boat that could float in a strong rain storm? The Torah’s instructions according to which Noach built the ark are fairly straightforward [Bereishit 6:14-16]: “Make yourself an ark of gopher wood; make it an ark with compartments, and cover it inside and out with pitch… the length of the ark shall be three hundred cubits, its width fifty cubits, and its height thirty cubits. Make an opening for daylight in the ark, and terminate it within a cubit of the top. Put the entrance to the ark in its side”. The boat that Noach built was essentially a flat wooden box. The double-coating of pitch would prevent the intrusion of water and the sloped roof would enable the rainwater to slide off. It’s really not rocket science. What was to prevent someone else from building a similar lifeboat[1]?

To address this question, we must ask a few more. Using modern units of measurement, the ark was about one hundred and fifty metres long and twenty five metres wide. This is greater than the size of a football field. How could Noach build the ark when he was assisted by only his three sons? Even assuming he had unlimited time to build the ark[2], there is still the problem of the limited size of the beams of ark – they had to be small enough to be carried and fit into place by four people. A large number of beams means an ark with many joints, where each joint is not only a potential source of leakage, but also a weak link in the structural rigidity of the ark, making it susceptible to bending and breaking under the force of the water. How did the ark survive the flood? For argument’s sake, assume that Noach had a large and experienced workforce helping him build the ark. How could the ark – how could any ark – withstand the forces of the flood? As the rain rose [Bereishit 15:20] “fifteen cubits above the highest mountain”, it must have been falling at the rate of more than nine metres (thirty feet) per hour[3]. The heaviest annual rainfall in recorded history was about twenty six metres. That corresponds to only three hours of Noach’s rain. Noach’s rain fell nearly three thousand times harder. The force of the torrential rainfall would have been considerable and depending on the thickness of the wood, would have eventually smashed it to bits. Worse, the Torah tells of underwater explosions and the Talmud in Tractate Sanhedrin [108b] asserts that the floodwaters were boiling hot, likely heated by subaquatic volcanic eruptions. Underwater explosions create a cavity of high-pressure gas, pushing the water upwards. The size of the bubble rapidly increases as it nears the surface, forcefully exploding when it breaches the waves. It is not coincidental that the best way of sinking a boat is by using a torpedo or a mine that detonates underneath, rather than inside, the boat. The effect on the surface would have been catastrophic for any boat. How did the ark survive[4]?

Our approach to these questions is based on the approach of Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, known as the Maharal, who lived in Prague in the sixteenth century. Writing in “Ner Mitzvah”, the Maharal discusses the miracles of the holiday of Chanukah. What was the miracle of Chanukah? Put differently, what are we celebrating for eight days? One could posit that we celebrate the miracle of the lamp (menorah) in the Holy Temple (Beit HaMikdash), which was filled with enough oil to burn for only one day but burnt for eight straight days. And yet, counterintuitively, the Al HaNissim (For the Miracles) prayer recited three times daily each day of Chanukah makes no mention of this particular miracle. It clearly states that Chanukah celebrates the miraculous Jewish defeat of the Seleucid Greeks: “You turned over the strong in the hand of the weak, the many in the hand of the few, the impure in the hand of the pure, the wicked in the hand of the righteous, and sinners in the hand of those involved with Your Torah.” Why was the Maccabean victory so miraculous? It has been argued by military historians that in the hilly Judean terrain, the Greek tactics of mass troop movement was no match for Maccabean guerilla attacks. On the other hand, the miracle of the oil was incontrovertible. There is no physical explanation for the longevity of the oil. It could only be the result of Divine intervention. The Maharal answers that the miracle of the oil was an indicator. The supernatural burning of the oil was an indication that the military victory, while perhaps explainable, was also the result of Divine intervention.

What do oil and wars have to do with arks and floods? After the flood is over and Noach and his family leave the ark to reboot the world, G-d reveals the rainbow as His eternal covenant. G-d tells Noach [Bereishit 9:14-15] “When I bring clouds over the earth, and the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will remember My covenant between Me and you and every living creature among all flesh, so that the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh.” A rainbow is a very explainable natural phenomenon, caused by the refraction and reflection of sunlight by water droplets, breaking the white light into its spectral components. Rainbows are caused not only by rainstorms and by floods, but also by waterfalls and sometimes by the sprinklers in my garden. One can mathematically calculate the angle from which an observer will see a rainbow based upon the angle of incident light (42 degrees). What is the innovation here? The answer lies not in the natural phenomenon of the rainbow, but in the message of that phenomenon: From this moment on, says G-d, the rainbow will become a sign of life and not of death, a sign of hope and not of despair. In a similar vein, what is important about Noach’s flood is not the natural – or even the supernatural – phenomenon, but of its message: The world was doomed because [Bereishit 6:5-6] “G-d saw how great was human wickedness on earth, how every plan devised by the human mind, was nothing but evil all the time.” Man had wantonly disobeyed G-d and His commandments. The world could only be rebuilt by a person who blindly obeyed them. G-d could have told Noach to build a cardboard kayak and had Noach built it precisely as G-d specified, he would have been saved. G-d does not require quantum mechanics to sustain our world nor does he require torrential rain to destroy it. All that He requires is our love.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5783

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, Geisha bat Sara, Hila bat Miriam, Avraham Menashe ben Chana Bracha and Batya Sarah bat Hinda Leah.

[1] Lest one suggest that there could have been others who escaped the rain in their own boats but they starved to death because they had not prepared sufficient food to survive the duration of a flood that from start to finish lasted more than one year, the Torah states that all living things perished after only forty days.

[2] Noach lived for 950 years.

[3] Mount Everest is 8849 metres tall.

[4] One additional point for the physically inclined: Noach’s boat was too narrow to be a lifeboat. Its transverse moment of inertia was unnecessarily low, increasing the probability of the ark capsizing. Most lifeboats are circular to best survive rough seas. See for a fascinating suggestion.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over thirty 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 2000 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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