By Mara Koven-Gelman
Parshat Noach (Noah) is the second weekly Torah portion of the annual cycle of reading. My first-born son is named Noah. So popular was the name Noah in his Toronto Jewish Day school, that there were four “Noahs” in his grade.
Why is Noah of the Ark story so popular? Commentators describe him as a “meh” leader. While he was righteous, he was also described as tamim, translated as “unblemished,” or “innocent.” Noah followed G-d’s orders to build an ark, populate it with his family and two of every living species in advance of the flood. Noah did everything G-d commanded, everything.
What is interesting is not Noah’s entrance, but his exit from the ark. After he was cooped up in the ark for 109 days, knowing the world was destroyed, G-d said to Noah, “Come out of the Ark, take your wife, sons, and son’s wives, and take every living creature with you.” (Gen 8:15-16)
Why didn’t Noah eagerly bolt out to see what remained? Think of all the people impacted by Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico or Hurricane Ian in Florida. People rushed to return to their homes and communities and start rebuilding.
In 2014, Rabbi Jonathan’s Sacks (of blessed memory) quotes his professor Rabbi Dr. Nachum Rabinovitch who wondered why Noah waited to leave the ark.
“When it comes to rebuilding a shattered world, you do not wait for permission. God gives us permission. He expects us to go on ahead.” Rabbi Sacks had an “aha moment.” “Suddenly I understood that this is a significant part of what faith is in Judaism: to have the courage to pioneer, to do something new, to take the road less travelled, to venture out into the unknown.”
We can all relate to Noah. When there is so much unknown in the world, it is easier to rely on guidance. But the commentators suggest something else: when there is so much at stake, when there are climate issues, racial and health disparities, we should be compelled to go out first without being told. We should strive to be courageous and move out of the ark’s (safety) without being asked. Maybe the concept of Tikkun Olam (repairing the world) comes from this moment.
I recently read an article about one of the five female rabbis of France who has become noted for helping people through COVID-19 crisis and death. Rabbi Delphine Horvilleur, says that American Jewry, “mistranslates the Jewish concept Tikkun Olam to mean repairing the world. Resilience only comes from acknowledging that what is broken, will not be repaired. It is always about knowing how you are going to bring together the shattered pieces of your life to create a stronger story for times of despair. “
Perhaps that is what the story of Noah is teaching us and why it is so popular. To have the courage to be resilient, to run out of the ark towards the unknown and strive to make a stronger society.
Mara Koven-Gelman is the Director of the Buffalo Jewish Community Relations Council.