Architect of the Ark
Summary by Channie Koplowitz Stein
When Hashem decided to destroy the world with a flood but save Noach and his family, He commanded Noach to build an Ark which would serve as his haven during the storm until the waters would subside. Rav Yoshiyahu Pinto in Torat Yoshiyahu asks an obvious question: Couldn’t Hashem have saved Noach miraculously as He later saved Avraham Avinu and others? Why did Hashem command Noach to build an Ark?
Rashi’s answer is very well known. Hashem told Noach to build the Ark so that over the 120 years of its construction, the people’s curiosity would be aroused, they would question Noach as to the purpose of this structure. They would then hopefully repent of their evil ways and the world would not be destroyed. Along these lines, Rabbi Birnbaum asks a fundamental question inB’Mikroei Shemo. Tanach records another instance where destruction was decreed. When Hashem decreed the destruction of Nineveh, He sent the prophet Yonah to call out to the city in the hope that they would repent. Indeed, the population repented and the decree was annulled. Why did Hashem not command Noach to call out to the population about the impending flood and instead command him work on building an Ark for 120 years?
Rabbi Birnbaum proceeds to give one answer among several others that we will explore further on in this shiur. Rabbi Birnbaum contrasts the generation of the flood with the citizens of Nineveh. Although both were guilty of chamas, thievery, and other sins, the generation of the flood was corrupt through and through – Vateeshaceis haaretz lifnei haElokhim. When the flaw is deep within one’s character, there is no repair, but when the character remains somewhat pure in spite of the sins, repentance and repair are possible. Nineveh’s character, although certainly not perfect, was not corrupt to its core and could therefore repent, as it did. Nevertheless, writes Rabbi Gamliel Rabinowitz in Tiv Hatorah, Hashem still hoped that the people of the generation of the flood would do teshuvah. Perhaps a physical manifestation of the danger that awaited them would arouse them to repent. Therefore Hashem commanded Noach to build the Ark.
Ramban continues the discussion by pointing out that there was no natural way the Ark could contain two of every animal, let alone enough food to last them all a full year. But in every miracle, Hashem wants man to do his part, and He will do that which is beyond man’s capacity. In this way, the miraculous nature of the event is minimized.
Why would Hashem want to minimize His miracles? Rabbi Scheinerman in Ohel Mosheexplains that by making the miracles appear to be somewhat natural, Hashem allows us to retain our belief in Him through our free choice to do so. Just as the people then could attribute the salvation of Noach to a boat, albeit a small one, rather to Hashem, so can we see everything that happens to us as either part of the cycle of natural cause and effect, or as the result of Hashem’s constant guidance and protection.
Rabbi Pinto then presents a follow up question. If miracles are meant to appear somewhat natural, why do we have open miracles throughout the Torah (and Medrash)? Why was Avraham saved from the fiery furnace, and later from certain death in the war of the Four Kings against the Five? Why did Hashem perform open miracles for Moshe and for Bnei Yisroel in Egypt, at the Sea, and in the desert? Yet Hashem performed only a “hidden” miracle in saving Noach with an Ark.
The answer lies not so much in Hashem’s actions, but in the actions of our “heroes” that precipitated Hashem’s responses, continues Rabbi Pinto. In those instances where the miracles are glaringly obvious as miracles, the people involved did more than just follow Hashem’s command and refrain from sin, as did Noach. In each case, they went beyond the call of duty with mesirat nefesh, with self sacrifice beyond the natural norm, and Hashem responded in kind. Avraham, for example, put his life on the line in a suicide mission to save his nephew Lot, and prayed for the people of Sodom to whom he had no connection, and Bnei Yisroel followed Hashem in complete faith into a wilderness where food and water would not be naturally available. Noach, on the other hand, did only what was required of him and no more, not even praying for his friends and neighbors. Therefore, Hashem too responded with only the minimal, natural ways of survival, with a “boat” to sail the waters.
This idea is validated through a verse in Tehillim 121, “Hashem tzilcha al yad yeminecha - Hashem is your shade (your shadow) on your right hand.” Just as a shadow responds directly in proportion to your actions, so does Hashem respond to us is proportion to our actions.
Rabbi Yanky Tauber offers a beautiful insight into this concept in The Inside Story based on the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. When we recite the Shema, after we say to love Hashem with all your heart (passions and desires) and with all your soul (even willing to give your life), we continue by saying, “And with all me’odecha. What else is there? Rabbi Tauber posits that the usual translation of wealth or might ignores the fact that wealth would be subsumed under your heart, things you want. The true translation of meod is “very” or “more so”. In other words, we should strive to go beyond ourselves, beyond what we perceive as our limitations, and reach for a higher, better self. The very letters of MeOD are an acronym for ODoM, Man, who through his perseverance and self sacrifice can go far beyond what he thought he was capable of doing.
When a person extends himself beyond the norm, he has the power to infuse physical objects with additional and supernatural energy, writes Rabbi Shmuelevitz. Rabbi Shmuelevitz gives the example of the Nicanor Gates. These bronze doors were a gift from the wealthy Nicanor tor the Temple complex. They were fashioned in Egypt, and Nicanor himself accompanied them to Jerusalem. However, a great storm raged as the ship traveled from Egypt to Israel, and the sailors threw one of the heavy doors overboard in an attempt to save the ship. When they wanted to throw the second door overboard, Nicanor refused, saying they should throw him overboard with the door. Immediately, the sea became calm, but Nicanor was distressed over the first door. Miraculously, when the ship landed and the remaining door was unloaded from the ship, the first door floated up on the shore. Nicanor’s supernatural self sacrifice infused this door with similar supernatural powers to withstand the laws of nature, of buoyancy and drifting.
So too Noach had to push himself beyond his natural endurance to continue building the Ark over 120 years of jeers and heckling from the people around him, continues Rabbi Shmuelevitz. Noach’s mesirat nefesh infused the Ark with the supernatural ability to house so many animals and store so much food. Rabbi Shmuelevitz adds that we can also take further lessons from Pharaoh’s daughter who defied her father’s decree to save a Jewish child and merited that the name she gave that child, Moshe, be the name he is known by through all time, and another lesson from Channah who invested each stitch of the coat she sewed for her son Shmuel with tremendous self sacrifice as she brought him to the Mishkan at Shiloh to be raised by Eli the Priest. Therefore, that coat grew with the child Shmuel as he grew into adulthood.
Now that the Yomim Tovim are over, how can we show our children that we are ready to go further to demonstrate our love for Hakodosh Boruch Hu? Will we go to a shiur when it’s not convenient, say extra tefillot or Tehillim for others, or take on an additional resolution to demonstrate our love and commitment to Hashem and His Torah?
Getting back to Noach, Vayvinu Bamikra notes that giving Noach an assignment that required him to fend off the mockers would strengthen Noach’s resolve in doing his task, as he would be forced to defend his position to others.
There are several other reasons that may explain why Hashem commanded Noach to build the Ark besides to arouse the people and to provide Noach himself with merit to be saved. As Rabbi Zaitchik points out in Ohr Chodosh, Noach’s stay in the Ark was not a comfortable cruise but a way Hashem chose to make him empathize with the people who were dying. Noach’s ship was relatively small and would be buffeted on all sides by the steaming, turbulent waters. Further, Noach could look out the window and see the people dying. Noach needed to awaken his sense of compassion. Herein is a lesson for us as well, writes Rabbi Pincus, to arouse our compassion for others, to pray for them and say some Tehillim for them. We do not know what power lies within us and within our prayers. We need our compassion to be aroused before it’s too late.
This point seems to provide the basis for Rabbi Goldwicht’s analysis in Asufat Maarachot. He notes that the prophet calls the flood mei Noach, the waters of Noach because Noach didn’t pray for the people to be saved. Even if they weren’t worthy, Noach should still have prayed for them and, perhaps by befriending them, could have brought them back to recognizing Hashem and to living a more moral life, as Avraham Avinu would later do. In fact, Rabbi Goldwicht cites Seforno in stating that Noach was saved not so much due to his own merit but simply because he found favor in Hashem’s eyes. How was Noach less than worthy? Rabbi Goldwicht notes that we are not immune to the culture around us. The entire generation was filled with thievery. Thievery is a result of egocentrism, of selfishness and not caring for anyone else. While Noach did not become a thief, he did lack compassion as a result of his environment. The Ark served as a training ground for caring and compassion, for while within the Ark, Noach and his family were compelled to work cooperatively and to care for all of the animals, a 24/7. The Medrash even tells us that Noach was injured when he was late in feeding one of the animals.
Rabbi Goldwicht cites a second fascinating Medrash. Avraham Avinu who studied with Noach’s son Shem, asked MalkiTzedek, in what merit the family left the Tayvah, the Ark. Notice the question was not in what merit they were saved, but in what merit were they given the opportunity to leave the Ark and rebuild the world. To this MalkiTzedek answered, that it was in the merit of the chessed that they extended to the animals for that entire year during which they were literally cooped up together. Hearing this, Avraham took upon himself to perfect the trait of chessedin himself and, in fact, chessed is the overriding characteristic we associate with Avraham Avinu. From this we are taught olam chessed yiboneh, the world is built and exists through the merit ofchessed. As the Ner Uziel, Rabbi Uziel Milevsky writes, when those nine people entered the Ark, they entered as individuals, but when they left, the Torah pairs them up and they leave as families. The Ark was the training ground for living together as families and communities, and learning to care for each other.
What ark can we enter into to protect us from the floodwaters of our passions and desires in a world obsessed with instant self gratification? Rabbi Tauber quoting the Baal Shem Tov, reminds us that the alternate meaning of tayvah is word. If we immerse ourselves in the words of Torah and of tefillah we will protect ourselves from the raging waters of our self centered society. But that does not mean that we must live a life of isolation. Just as Noach brought specimens of the outside world into the Ark, so must we bring the outside world into our lives to help us do our mission. Our mission is to leave our personal arks and go out into the world to build a better world without greed, jealousy and hate, to create a world filled with the knowledge and love of Hashem.
Shabbos is an additional ark that Hashem gave us to protect us, an island of time in the stormy world around us, writes the Netivot Shalom. But even when it is not Shabbos, when God fearing Jews come together in unity and cooperation to support each other, we create good energy that protects us and keeps us from drowning. That’s why the yetzer horo works so hard to create conflict among us. What allowed Noach to be saved was learning to do chessed in the classroom of the Ark. We as Jews must work together in harmony, side by side so that we can bring Moshiach and also build a new, peaceful world order, one of peace and chessed.