Older readers will surely remember the classic joke about a nice Jewish boy who becomes a millionaire and buys a fancy yacht. He takes his elderly Jewish parents on a trip to share his success with them. Proudly, he tells them all about his new yacht’s speed, specs and capacity. Then he asks them what they think of his spanking new naval captain’s uniform. Whereupon his father utters the immortal words, “Son, by me, you are a captain. By your mother, you are a captain. But by a captain, you’re no captain!”
I remembered this story when reading this week’s parsha, which tells the story of Noah and the Flood. Although the Torah explicitly describes Noah as a tzaddik, a saint, the Talmudic rabbis debated how righteous he really was. Some argued that in his generation, which was morally corrupt, Noah was considered a saint, but had he lived in the generation of someone like Abraham, he might not have counted for much. Or, in other words, “By a tzaddik, he’s no tzaddik.”
When it was all over, and the floodwaters had subsided and the earth was dry again, God commanded Noah to leave the ark. Some commentaries ask why God had to command him to leave. Wouldn’t Noah have been only too happy and eager to leave that floating house where he’d been cooped up for a full year? Surely, he must have been suffering from claustrophobia and couldn’t wait to get out.
Some explain that, since God had commanded him to enter the ark, Noah now waited for God to command him to exit it. Others say that one look at the world’s utter devastation after the deluge was enough to put Noah off leaving his ark. Still others argue that the ark was a miraculous phenomenon—a giant zoo where all the different animals got along peacefully, and even the wild beasts of the jungle were tame—an absolute marvel to behold. Why would Noah leave his little “messianic bubble”?
Whatever the reason, God commands Noah, “Go out of the ark!” You, and your family, and all the animals, be fruitful and multiply, and repopulate the world.
And the message to Noah not to remain confined to his place of shelter but to go out and confront a desolate world is as relevant to us today as it was to him way back then.
We all have our own little arks of safety and shelter, our comfortable cocoons of refuge from the dangers and threats of the outside world. We have physical comfort zones and even spiritual comfort zones. Understandably, we are reluctant to leave them. Whether we are safe from physical harm or danger, or sheltered from outside influences that are not in line with our own spiritual value systems, secluding ourselves in our ark provides a convenient solution.
But there comes a time when God says to us, “Get out of your ark!” The world needs rebuilding, and you can help. At some point, we must leave the security of our places of shelter and go out to repair the world. We cannot live forever as disinterested isolationists, calm and cozy in our comfortable cocoons.
Personally, I cannot bring myself to look at those vile photos and videos making the rounds of our dearly beloved brothers and sisters in Israel being butchered. I feel like Noah wanting to stay in his sheltered ark so as not to have to face the desolation of a world ravaged by such evil floodwaters.
And yet, we have witnessed the most inspirational scenes of the people of Israel responding as one person with one heart. Israelis who went to join their brothers in arms even before being called up for duty; Israelis overseas clamoring to return home to fight; ordinary citizens of all ages, types and stripes coming together to support our troops with food, sleeping bags, toiletries and anything they might need; donations pouring in from Diaspora communities around the world as they participate in their thousands at prayer meetings, vigils and solidarity assemblies. And most gratifying of all, the unity of Am Yisrael in Israel, which only a week ago was fractured and approaching civil war. Suddenly, judicial reform is irrelevant as we unite to defend ourselves against the ruthless, inhuman barbarians who would destroy us all if only they could.
Jews have left their arks and are getting personally involved in any way they can. Thankfully, we are one united people after all.
Long ago, the Lubavitcher Rebbe taught us to leave our little arks of personal spirituality, and not to sequester ourselves from the outside world. Rather, he said, we should take responsibility for our communities and our people, no matter how far removed they may seem to be. Thankfully, today everyone got the message. Indeed, how heartwarming it is to see images of devout Jews in shtreimels singing and dancing together with secular Israelis.
Noah left his ark and rebuilt the world. Please God, we will all leave our own comfort zones and rebuild ours.