Noah’s Ark as a metaphor for Shabbat: Thoughts on God’s promises to and manifestations on the Earth
Our ancestors did not think about “science” as we do, but they understood, deeply and organically, the natural world around them. Flora, fauna, the heavens, the seasons, the tides, and best practices for agriculture, hunting, fishing, and work with domesticated animals were all things their communities needed to know well to thrive. The world around them often made sense, and sometimes it didn’t; the role of religion in the ancient world, like the role of religion in our own, was to bridge these two areas of experience and, most of all, to bind people together in community. This is the meaning of the Latin root of ligo which religion shares with ligament: it holds us together.
I have believed for a long time that it is no coincidence that we read Parashat Noach less than two weeks after the holiday of Shemini Atzeret when we recite תפילת גשם / t’fillat geshem, the prayer for rain. The parched land of Israel and the Middle East is just now experiencing the first rainfall in more than six months. The flash floods will soon return, vigorously and briefly, to the Judean Hills and Negev Desert. And it cannot be a coincidence that we read of a great rainstorm, a flood to end all floods, just as it begins to rain for the first time in months. Because every time we experience a sudden change, deep down in the fear-center of our brain, we ask ourselves the often subconscious question: “Is the new normal the forever normal?” Is this ever going to stop?
The denouement of the flood narrative occurs near the middle of the fourth aliyah of Noach, where we read in beautifully poetic biblical Hebrew:
עוד כל ימי הארץ: זרע וקציר / וקר וחם / וקיץ וחרף / ויום ולילה / לא ישבתו.
Od kol y’mei ha’aretz: Zera v’katzir / v’kor vachom / v’kayitz vachoref / v’yom valailah / lo yishbotu.
For the rest of the earth’s days: [the cycles of] planting and reaping / summer and winter / rainy and dry / day and night / will not cease.
This is the promise God makes to us: cycles endure. It will stop raining. Day will become night. Until the end of days.
The flood story itself is of the destruction of these cycles and divisions, specifically those established in the Torah reading from last week, the creation story of the first chapter of Genesis. Imagine the unceasing rainstorm, the impact of the cloud cover, the loss of visibility. All the distinctions (הבדלות/havdalot) God set up have been dissolved: light and darkness (1:4), the waters above and the waters below (1:7), the collection of the waters to create ocean and land (1:9). And all of God’s creations have disappeared: flora (1:11), the sun, moon, and stars (1:14), fish and birds (1:20), land animals (1:24), and all human beings (1:26) save for Noah and his family on the ark.
The only aspect of creation to survive the flood is the ark itself, and the only part of the creation narrative which is not destroyed through the flood is Shabbat (2:1-3). Shabbat itself is a celebration of God’s creation, and it is anachronistically appealing to imagine Noah and his family making Kiddush in the midst of the flood with the words zikaron l’ma’asei b’reishit, a remembrance of the acts of creation, when they likely believed that the only surviving acts of creation were on their boat.
This past summer, one of our scholars-in-residence, Rabbi Jordan Bendat-Appell, shared a powerful teaching from the Hasidic master known as the Netivot Shalom which connects Shabbat to the ark “because Shabbat is the source of the connection between Israel and God.” It is “a dwelling place in the lower realms” – God desired a dwelling place, a pure spot in which we might raise ourselves up” (translation by Rabbi Jonathan Slater). During the flood, the ark is the sole remnant of God’s fingerprints on the earth, it is the second iteration of God’s spirit hovering over the waters (Genesis 1:2), it is the only place where God’s likeness and image – human beings – can be found.
Shabbat is magical if for no other reason than that it was the only one of God’s creations that Godself could not conquer. It survived the flood and, as the Zionist thinker Echad Ha’am believed, Shabbat has given Jews an identity, a structure, and unbreakable protection throughout our history. At camp, of course, Shabbat is magical in other ways. By counting the Shabbatot of the summer we acknowledge the turning of the seasons and the progress of our time together. We experience the power of community and the exuberant expressions of that community which are one of the great ways God becomes manifest in our lives. We are reminded of the unbroken chain that links us to our predecessors and successors, in Conover and in our families.
This Shabbat Noach, the 23rd anniversary of my Bar Mitzvah, I will be thinking about the ark. I will imagine it braving the elements as so many parts of our country and the world have struggled in 2017 with braving water, wind, and fire. I will be praying for it to rain, in appropriate amounts, wherever rain is needed. And I will fear not as I trust God to keep the promise that the rainy season yields the dry season, that the shortening days will lengthen in a few months, that fall will become winter will become spring will become camp.