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“Go into the Ark” – So as to Emerge Changed

  • Rav Hillel Rachmani




With gratitude and in honor of the bar mitzvah, this year b'ezrat Hashem,
 of our twin sons, Michael and Joshua - Steven Weiner and Lisa Wise



Fresh Fruit and Vintage Wine: Ethics and Wisdom of the Aggada

By Rav Yitzchak Blau

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Adapted by Shaul Barth

Translated by Kaeren Fish



“God saw that man’s evil in the world was great, and all the inclination of his heart’s thoughts was only evil constantly… And God said, ‘I shall wipe out man whom I created… both man and beast, and creeping creatures and the birds of the sky, for I regret having made them.” (Bereishit 6:5-7)


Seemingly, the logic of these verses is clear: man sins and is therefore punished with destruction.  However, it must be understood that in the ancient world, this idea was extraordinarily innovative.  Ancient pagans regarded the gods as possessing certain powers, and therefore man’s task was to appease them so that they would not become angry and punish mankind.  The idea that God was not only the source of power but also the source of morality – a morality, moreover, which obligated man – was entirely new.  Rav Kook explains that the new message Judaism brought to the world was that God is not only the Ruler of all that exists, but also represents all positive qualities, and therefore man must strive to imitate Him.


The significance of this idea is that the world is not just the stage for man’s actions, but also a means in God’s hands to punish or reward mankind.  In light of this perspective, we understand that there is a direct connection between man’s actions and the reality that reigns in the world.  Man’s corruption leads to the Flood; in other words, man’s actions influence the state of the world.  This situation, in which the world responds to man’s behavior, is manifest primarily through Am Yisrael in Eretz Yisrael.


Why does Noach make no attempt to cause his generation to repent? The Torah recounts how Avraham used to travel about and “call in God’s Name," causing us to wonder why Noach did not.  The answer may lie in the depiction by the midrashim of the generation of Noach as not only failing to be influenced by Noach’s righteousness, but as mocking and ridiculing him.  When a person is unaware of his inborn abilities, he is unable to influence those around him because there is no genuine point of contact between him and his environment.  He does not perceive the unique good that he can offer the world, and therefore will not exert himself to make contact with those who are different from him.  Noach was a tzaddik, but he did not understand his uniqueness and his mission for his generation.  Hence, not only did he not succeed in influencing them to repent, but he withdrew and distanced himself from them.  No point of contact was created between them, and they scorned him.


The Sefat Emet explains that Noach’s ark symbolizes introversion, gazing within oneself.  In other words, when a person is unaware of his abilities and uniqueness, he needs to look inward, and from within this introversion he will come to recognize his worth and then emerge to impact on his surroundings.  And, indeed, we see that the midrashim are full of descriptions of the acts of kindness that Noach performed in the ark, and of his contribution to all the animals that he saved.  When Noach turns inward, in the ark, and contemplates his strengths, he discovers his abilities and succeeds in utilizing them.  The Sefat Emet explains that Shabbat, too, is a point of inward-turning of the same type.  The law of eruv illustrates this: on Shabbat a person is required to limit himself to a certain fixed area.  The reason for this is that the attempt to reach outward and expand during the week’s workdays, without a preceding period of introversion on Shabbat, leads to corruption, or improper utilization of ability.


The yeshiva, too, from a certain perspective, is a point where we try to turn inward towards ourselves and to focus on and maximize our ability.  With the knowledge that we gather during this period of “severance” and introversion, we hope to emerge and to influence our environment after leaving the yeshiva.  The point of contact between Noach and his generation is revealed specifically in Noach’s inner place; it is in the ark – the place where Noach focuses on his innermost, most personal point – that the connection between him and the rest of the world comes into being.


The first Rashi on the Torah cites Rabbi Yitzchak, who taught that the reason why the Torah (seemingly a code of conduct, conveying God’s commandments) does not begin with the command, “This month shall be for you the first of months" (Shemot 12:2), is because God wanted to show the connection between Am Yisrael and Eretz Yisrael.  Am Yisrael is the center, the innermost point, of all the nations, and Eretz Yisrael is the center of the world.  It is specifically at this innermost point, the center of the nations and of the world, that we can expect to find the connection between man and the world.  Like Noach, who found his connection with the world only at his innermost point, when he turned inward, in the ark, so too Am Yisrael alone, of all the nations, is able to create direct contact with Eretz Yisrael, at the innermost point of the world, and to nurture a reciprocal relationship between man and his land.


(This sicha was delivered on leil Shabbat parashat Noach 5763 [2002].)