Thank God for the Ark

Parashat Noach / פרשת נח
Torah Portion: Genesis 6:9 – 11:32

All the fountains of the great deep burst apart,
And the floodgates of the sky broke open.
Genesis: 7:11

This past Memorial Day my family’s apartment in Houston got flooded. Four months later and well-settled into a second floor apartment in the same complex, rain water started to come into our house from the ceiling! In May, “the fountains of the great deep” had burst apart, causing water to rise in our home from the floor up. In September, “the floodgates of the sky broke open,” and the waters came in from on high. Oy!

The analogy of our misfortune to Noah’s flood is, I admit, imperfect. There can be no comparing our loss of property to the destruction of all humanity, save one family. To equate the two would be crass. Rather, I am struck simply by the idea that in both the Noah story and in our experience, destruction seemed to come from both above and below: what an appropriate metaphor for those times when so much seems to go wrong.

I’ve yet to meet anyone who hasn’t on occasion had to face more hardship than one person should have to handle. Thus, the old saying: “God doesn’t give us more than we can bear.” That saying may feel true for most people, but to victims of the Shoah or the Inquisition or the Crusades or severe depression or terminal illness, nothing could be further from the truth. For many, catastrophe in extreme measure is too much to bear, and the suggestion that God causes such suffering is obscene.

Theological issues and unbearable suffering aside, however, there is much we can learn from the Noah story about dealing with life’s painful contingencies.

God gave Noah notice that God would send a flood that would wipe out all of creation. With that notice, God also instructed Noah to build an ark so that he and his family and the remnants of the animal kingdom that accompanied them on board could survive and repopulate the world once the waters subsided. In the end, Noah was well-equipped to survive the deluge.

It’s important to note that it was Noah who built the ark, not God. Noah was commanded by God, or perhaps, inspired by God, to build the ark. But it was Noah who created the means for his own survival. That is a crucial point.

Many times in our lives, we are Noah. We are faced with misery akin to 40 days of rain and over 300 days cooped up in an ark with loud, smelly livestock, birds, and other creatures. We just want to the misery to end, but we are blessed to have the means to ride out the storm.

We all have our own arks. They are the networks of friends and family that support us. They are the diversions that take our mind off our concerns. They are the inner reserves we’ve cultivated to take what life doles out without breaking under the weight. If we’re smart, we’ve spent a lifetime building our arks before the crises hit, not knowing, of course, when they will hit.

True, not everyone has a support network or diversions or even the inner reserves. To them, we offer our prayers. At the very least, they can take solace knowing they live in a world where someone remembers that people suffer immensely, who don’t have an ark to shelter them. Let’s not forget them. Let’s be their ark.

As we read about the tragedy that befalls early humankind, as we imagine flood waters rising from below and rain falling ceaselessly from the heavens, we imagine ourselves aboard the ark, an ark that we built with our own hands. Let us take pride in our craftsmanship and be grateful to God for all the resources at our disposal — people and things and our own internal gifts – that make up the ark, in which we weather life’s storms.

Mining the Torah for Gems: The Case of Parashat Terumah

Parashat Terumah / פרשת תרומה
Torah Portion: Exodus 25:1 – 27:19

In this week’s portion, Parashat Terumah, God gives Moses instructions to build the ark that would contain the tablets of the covenant between God and Israel, the menorah that would stand in the Tabernacle, and the Tabernacle itself. The word “terumah” refers to the voluntary offerings of materials – minerals, stones, fabrics, dyes, oil and spices — that Moses was to take from the Israelites to build these things and other holy objects. If you’re into lists, you’ll love this week’s reading!

The lists and instructions in Terumah, however, may very well cause some readers’ eyes to glaze over. Unlike the narrative components of Torah, the details of the Tabernacle do not provide the most engaging reading. To be sure, Terumah is just one of many portions dedicated to seemingly mundane or esoteric topics relating to the priestly system, much of which can be difficult to access without a full appreciation of their significance to biblical Israel or to us today. Without the willingness to discover transcendent meaning in the details of the Torah, the Torah itself will appear to many people as a massive rock that cannot be penetrated, when in truth, the Torah is an endless mine of precious gems.

Don Isaac Abravanel, a 15th century Spanish commentator also known simply as Abarbanel, feels the pain of those who try to find meaning in Torah but fall short when they encounter the complex, drier sections of Torah, such as we have in Terumah. Speaking to the Jewish community of his own day, Abarbanel writes:

Do not think that the commandments about the Tabernacle, which do not apply to us here in the exile, or the laws that are valid only in the land of Israel, or the laws of priestly purity, have not value for us today. The Torah is a book of elevated wisdom and divine teaching. What we understand of these matters today, in terms of their allusions to higher things, is of as much value as when they were in practice. The same is true of all Torah matters. The Torah is a tool to prepare the way for us to become “like God, knowing good” (Gen. 3:5), to keep us alive in every place and at all times.[1]

Clearly, we are not the first generation to struggle with the Torah’s density, but as Abarbanel suggests, there’s much to be learned from the Torah if we’re willing to look closely and patiently at the text and, I would add, be a little creative.

One of my favorite examples of this approach to Torah comes this week in relation to the construction of “an ark of acacia wood,” the portable container for the tablets of the Ten Commandments:

They shall make an ark of acacia wood, two and a half cubits long, a cubit and a half wide, and a cubit and a half high. Overlay it with pure gold — overlay it inside and out — and make upon it a gold molding round about.  (Exodus 25:10-11)

The late 11th century commentator, Rabbi Shlomo Itzchaki, aka Rashi, helps us visualize these instructions:

Bezalel (the master craftsman, who oversaw the construction of the Tabernacle and its contents) made three arks, two of gold and one of wood. Each one had four walls and a bottom, and they were open on the top. He placed the wooden one inside the golden one and the [other] golden one inside the wooden one. He covered the upper rim with gold, thus it is found that [the wooden one] was overlaid from inside and from outside [with gold]. — [from Yoma 72b, Shek. 16b][2]

Rashi demonstrates that the ark is a complicated structure. Though God instructs Moses to build simply “an ark of acacia wood,” the ark is in fact three boxes, one made of wood, two made of gold.

The rabbis of the Talmud take this description of the ark and transform it into a lesson about the integrity of Torah scholars: Any Torah scholar who is not the same on the inside as on the outside, is no Torah scholar [Yoma 72b]. That is, as pure as one appears to be on the outside, one must also be in the inside. This is an ideal not just for Torah scholars, I believe, but for all of us.

There is yet another message to be found in the construction of the ark.[3] Why couldn’t the ark be made of just the two gold boxes? What need is there for the box of acacia wood as well? One answer is that in many respects human beings are most like this wooden layer. Unlike gold, which is a pure, unchanging metal, wood comes from trees, which grow and change over time. We may want to present ourselves to the world as pure in thought and resolute in belief, like the outer box of gold, which can be seen by all. We may want to present ourselves to God with similar purity and resoluteness, like the inner box of gold, which is closest to the tablets and seen only by God. On the way to achieving such purity and resoluteness, though, we humans need to be able to work out our ideas, acknowledge our doubts, and struggle with whatever keeps us from maximizing our intellectual, physical, moral and spiritual potential. That work of self-improvement is often done in solitude, out of the public eye. Furthermore, it is work made possible by the gift of free will; even God provides us the space to keep on growing.

There is much more to be learned from the Torah’s treatment of the ark and the Tabernacle than I can possibly touch upon here. Indeed, the mine of Torah never ceases to yield brilliant gems. Unless one is prepared to do the work to discover those gems, however, the Torah will always appear as a big, impenetrable rock.

Shabbat Shalom.

[1] Carasik, Michael. The Commentators’ Bible: Exodus. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2005. p. 215.

[2] Ibid., p. 219.

[3] See, for example, http://www.aish.com/tp/b/sw/Holy-Inside-and-Out.html.