Leaving the Ark (Parashat Noach)

This week’s Torah portion contains one of the most most famous stories in the entire Torah. The people have become corrupt and God decides to destroy the earth. God commands Noah to take his family along with a sampling of animals of every kind and to build an ark. It would rain for forty days and nights, but his family would be safe.

Yet, when the rains stop and the water recedes, Noah stays put. He does not venture out. He does no scouting. He remains much longer in the ark that one might expect. It is only when God turns to Noah and speaks, saying “come out of the ark, together with your wife, your sons, and your sons’ wives” that Noah listens.

Looking at the story, the 16th century scholar the Yefei To’ar  (Rabbi Shmuel Yafeh Ashkenazi of Constantinople) asks a fascinating question. Why is it that Noah would watch dry land appear below the ark but yet not leave on his own accord? Why does he need to wait for God to give him permission?

Interestingly, Noah is ready to go. In fact, according to one Midrash Noah would stand on the deck of his boat and cry out the words “Release my soul from confinement!” (Psalm 142:8 - found in M. Tanchuma Noah 11). Yet, he cannot take those first steps without God’s permission.

The Yefei To’ar has his own answer: Noah must wait because just as he needed God to tell him to enter the ark, so too did he need God to tell him to leave.

However, I think there might be something even deeper. To Noah, the ark was a prison. It was a deep, dark pit, one that he could not escape on his own. Trapped within its walls, Noah wanted to leave. But though his desire was to depart, he lacked the will to step outside. He needed another force, another voice, to tell him that it was was safe to come out.

Thousands of years later we meet another character like Noah in the personality of Rabbi Yochanan. One day Yochanan fell ill (Talmud, Berachot 5b). Upon learning of his friend’s plight, Rabbi Chanina came to visit. Chanina took Yochanan’s hand, listened to him, and comforted him. This simple act of love and friendship, gave Yochanan the power to heal himself.

Reflecting back  on this story, the author of our Talmud asks an important question: Why did Yochanan need Chanina’s help? He was just a powerful and gifted a his fellow rabbi. Couldn’t he have helped himself? The Talmud answers it’s own questions with a power teaching “A captive cannot release himself from prison.”

When we are trapped by our illnesses, by our isolation, and by our loneliness even the greatest of healers need another to come by to free them from their captivity. Locked behind the gate of despair, only another has the power to deliver us and absolve us of our pain.

Back to our story. Noah was stuck. He could not find the courage, the resolve, or the strength to venture out. Too much time had passed in darkness. Even though he might cry out for redemption, he had no pathway to find it.

Physics teach us that objects at rest will remain at rest. Noah needed a push to get going. He couldn’t free himself from the confines of the ark, but was willing to accept the help.

When we are trapped, when we are stuck, we may not be able to pull ourselves out of the depths. But we can lean on others in our time of darkness. God’s answer to Noah provides a model for what it means receive help when we reach out.

The prophet Isaiah was right when he quoted God:

In an hour of favor I answer you, And on a day of salvation I help you...Restoring the land, Allotting anew the desolate holdings,Saying to the prisoners, “Go free,” To those who are in darkness, “Show yourselves.” They shall pasture along the roads, On every bare height shall be their pasture. (49:8-9).

Whether we turn to God, our neighbor, our family or friends, sometimes we just need another to remind us that when we are ready, it is safe to venture outside.

 For more writings by Rabbi Katz check out his book, The Heart of Loneliness or his blog.