Noah: Through the window

At the end of forty days, Noah opened the window of the ark he had made…(Bereishit 8:6)

They found him often on the topmost floor
oblivious to endless clamour,
his eyes bewitched by that patch of wall
through which he dreamed his dreams.
As through a window, he saw the waters
glinting in the sunlight, dappled by the moon
as the ark sailed over the sunken earth.
He divined, outside, a different world,
devoid of raucous cries and untamed drives,
a new beginning – to plant and grow.

They found him again on the topmost floor,
oblivious to falling raindrops,
hewing a hatch through wooden wall
as though to reach beyond.
He moved his hand uncertainly
and paused and dared once more, until,
gazing through his window,
he saw the time had come
to start again.

In a commentary on Parashat Noah from 2012,, Rabbi Abigail Treu addresses the puzzle of the window in the ark, which Noah opens at the end of the forty days of torrential rain. She notes that the Rabbis wondered about this window (“chalon”) because in the very detailed blueprint of the ark’s construction, no such window is mentioned. Rabbi Treu comments that Rashi maintains that the window is the “tsohar” mentioned in Bereishit 6:16. This word, however, never appears again in all of the Tanach. It has been translated as “daylight” and is purported to be something that illuminated the ark, perhaps a skylight built in the roof of the ark, or the Rabbis speculated, perhaps a precious glowing gem. Even though the medieval Rabbis accept Rashi’s thesis that the two terms are synonymous, Rabbi Treu wonders why, if that is the case, the same word is not used.
She brings a suggestion by (then) JTS rabbinical student Shuli Passow, that the window is not the same aperture as the tsohar because Noah designed and built it himself, later. Rabbi Treu imagines Noah incarcerated in the ark for a seemingly endless period [what would turn out to be 370 days], cooped up at close quarters with a small group of people and a large group of animals all clamoring for his attention. The world he knows has vanished, and Rabbi Treu says “I like to imagine that one day he decided he needed a place to sit and look outside and daydream about a different kind of a life; about what might come next, after the ark. And so he built a window.” She suggests that this is why the window isn’t described earlier – because it was never in the initial building plans which Noah followed in constructing the ark. She submits that Noah built it during the flood. She says “Maybe before the waters were up too high on the sides of the ark, or maybe right there in the thick of things, while the rains were pouring down. Maybe he got soaking wet in the process and even let some of the rain water into the ark — life is messy like that sometimes. Especially in the middle of a crisis in which the survival of one’s self and family (and perhaps all of life as we know it) is at stake.”
She imagines Noah focusing on that hatch he has made, beginning to dream about the new world that will be established outside, and slowly readying himself for it. She conjectures “He stands by that window and gathers the courage to open it, to imagine a different life than the one he is living. Bravely, he tries sending different things out, tentatively testing.” Rabbi Treu notes that the Torah uses the same verb “ShLCh” for “sending out” the raven, the dove and his hand. It seems to be a process as Noah waits by his window. She points out that the text tells us that the raven seems to circle around but is unclear whether it returns or not. She continues, “One has the impression that a lot of time passed, a lot of time in which Noah waited by the window. Patiently? Impatiently? With hope? With dread?…” Rabbi Treu suggests that Noah’s first move of launching something through that window was “the most courageous and important first step, for it opened up the possibility that a different reality lay on the other side. And how hard it must have been to wait, to sit still to see what might happen.”
She regards the next step, of sending the dove, as further progress. She contends that Noah, gradually accustomed to his “dream window” hosting movement between his world within the ark and the one outside, now dispatches the dove to see if the world is habitable. She says, “This is new: Noah is beginning to make plans, to turn his dreams of a new life — ever so tentatively — into reality.
“Finally, Noah stretches (sh”l”ch) his own hand out too, catching the dove on its way home to him. The move betrays Noah’s ambivalence: he is eager for the dove to tell him it is time to build a new life, but he is not quite ready yet. He is anxious to leave and nervous, ready only to stretch one hand out. The flood has been difficult enough; transitioning again from what has become the “new normal” to another new reality is a slow process. Noah is testing, waiting until the time is right, and readying himself because the world has changed.”
Finally, the text records the periods of waiting between each move: Noah sends the dove out and it returns. He waits seven days and tries again. When the dove returns with an olive branch which indicates that the waters have subsided, he waits another week and sends it out again, after which it does not return. Rabbi Treu points out the interesting use, twice, of the word “to wait” from the root “YChL“, the latter time with a different conjugation, leading the exegetes to ponder the nature of this waiting – whether he was eager or reluctant. [The Midrash describes Noah as reluctant to leave the ark, afraid that those that come after him might again corrupt the world and trigger another flood, while Dr Avivah Zornberg, a contemporary commentator posits that he is eager to leave and divest himself of the responsibility for an ark-load full of people and animals.] Rabbi Treu suggests that this “waiting” readies Noah for life outside. She suggests that the olive branch symbolises that “life on the other side of the window is possible and is indeed in progress, that the dove no longer needs the window or the ark, and neither does Noah. Both are ready for that new life for which Noah has slowly been readying himself.”
Rabbi Treu addresses the symbolism of the olive leaf, which the Midrash says is bitter. She wonders whether that means that life, outside the shelter of the ark, is bitter. She cites Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch who teaches, “Our sages take this bitter olive leaf in the mouth of the dove to preach the great fact: Bitter, unusual, normally intolerable food, eaten in freedom and independence, is sweeter than the sweetest in a dependent condition. So for us the olive leaf is not a symbol of peace but of the value of independence and freedom and of content and moderation.” Rabbi Treu concludes, “The olive leaf, brought in through the window of Noah’s initiative, is the beginning of his new reality, the tangible result of his having been brave enough to build a window in the ark, to dream about a different life and to find a way to live it.
“We each sail on the seas of unknown waters, wondering what new things might be revealed if we dare to open a window and dream – see what is on the other side. From Noah we learn that courage is part of being a tzadik, a righteous person; the daring to dream and build windows, to open them and slowly send ideas through them, is what brings us from one stage of our lives to the next.”


Noah: Creation rewound

Darkness and chaos:
sepia shadows flit over the void.
Dazzling light rays glow and recede
night becomes day, and day yields to night.
Waters divide, ascending in clouds,
swelling the seas.
Tinges of color burst into brightness:
creation proliferates.
Humanity scatters over the earth
forging community, building a world.

Society crumbles, vice stalks the earth:
a solitary man fashions an ark.
Vivid hues fade, washed by the rain,
creation is flooded.
Clouds overflow: torrents pour down
and seas erupt skywards.
Storm brings eclipse: daylight dissolves and
surrenders to night.
Darkness and chaos:
sepia shadows flit over the void.

But the man in the ark sails on
borne to a new beginning.

In his book, Understanding Genesis The Heritage of Biblical Israel, Nahum M Sarna* notes that, “…the Deluge is directly connected with Creation. It is, in fact, the exact reversal of it. The two halves of the primordial waters of chaos which God separated as a primary stage in the creative process, were in danger of reuniting. To the Bible, the Flood is a cosmic catastrophe.” Sarna contrasts the biblical portrayal with the Mesopotamian versions of the Flood story. In the latter, the motivation for the Flood is ambiguous at best and seems to have little or no moral implications. In the Bible, however, there is no doubt about God’s motivations. Noah is chosen because of his righteousness, not some caprice or partiality on God’s part. In contrast to the Mesopotamian stories, the Bible makes repeated references to man’s wickedness: “The earth became corrupt before God; the earth was filled with lawlessness…”(Bereishit 6:11) and to God’s decision which He imparts to Noah, “to put an end to all flesh, for the earth is filled with lawlessness because of them: I am about to destroy them with the earth.” (Bereishit 6:131)
Sarna continues, “Now this kind of universalistic terminology, and this concept of the Flood as a returning to primeval chaos, has profound moral implications. For it means that in biblical theology human wickedness, the inhumanity of man to man, undermines the very foundations of society. The pillars upon which rest the permanence of all earthly relationships, totter and collapse, bringing ruin and disaster to mankind.
“This idea is one of the dominant themes of Scripture and runs like a thread of scarlet throughout its literature. The Psalmist, in excoriating the perversion of justice in the law courts, makes use of the same motif. He denounces the exploitation by the wicked of the poor and the fatherless, the afflicted and the destitute. Through such deeds, he says, “all the foundations of the earth are shaken.””
Sarna points out that the God of the Bible is not a remote deity – having created the world, He does not leave it to its own devices. He is very much concerned with the world and its inhabitants’ welfare, particularly in the socio-moral domain.

*Professor Nahum Mattathias Sarna (1923 – 2005) was a modern Biblical scholar who is best known for the study of Genesis and Exodus represented in his Understanding Genesis (1966) and in his contributions to the first two volumes of the JPS Torah Commentary (1989/91). He was also part of the translation team for the Ketuvim section of the Jewish Publication Society’s translation of the Bible, known as New Jewish Publication Society of America Version.

Noah: The Digression

And Terach took Abram his son, and Lot the son of his son Haran, and Sarai his daughter-in-law the wife of Abram his son and they went out with them from Ur of the Chaldees to go to the land of Canaan but they came to Haran and they settled there. (Bereishit 11:31).

Scanning the skyline
the trail disappears, yet
something awakens:
an urge to weigh anchor, and
trade ease for the unknown.

Setting forth eagerly
in the cool early morn,
the pathway is welcoming,
spirits are high, feet sail
lightly over ground.

Yet somewhere en route
the magnetic pull weakens,
the cargo feels weightier,
we seek a safe harbour
and settle for less than we dreamed.

Rabbi Moshe ben Amram Greenwald*, author of Arugat HaBosem**, taught on this verse, that not infrequently we experience an awakening and intend to reach a higher level but on the way we get side-tracked and progress no further. Terach, he says, did just that: he had pure intentions – to reach the land of Canaan – but veered off half-way. Abram, however, did not give up and pursued the goal.
In a blogpost on Lech Lecha from 2010,, Dr Rachel Anisfeld addresses this, pointing out that although the family left its birthplace in Ur of the Chaldees on the way to Canaan, it ended up settling in Haran. She wonders why subsequently (as described in next week’s parasha, Lech Lecha), God tells Abram to fulfil his father’s intention and journey to Canaan. She says, “All of our parents have already started our journeys for us. They brought us into the world and set us on a road, usually the road they themselves had been travelling.” Dr Anisfeld interprets God’s command to Abram, “Lech lecha” as “Make the trip your own.” She says, “Yes, it is the same path your father intended to walk, but make it yours, take ownership of it,” adding, “Terah went of his own accord, but Avram does so at God’s command. This is a journey originally conceived by man, but now sanctified by God’s command. As such, the journey, though physically the same, becomes entirely new and holy. The act is the same, but the intention, the kavanah, is different. Like a blessing before the performance of a mitzvah, God’s command transforms an ordinary action, the taking of a journey, into a special, holy one…”
Dr Anisfeld concludes, “Avram’s journey is the task of every child. From the child’s perspective, every parent’s path is like Terah’s, just a physical road they have been asked to follow. Every child has the obligation and the opportunity to heed God’s call to Avram – to make the trip her own, to give it meaning and sanctification, a sense of novelty and a future.”
In a subsequent blogpost from 2011 on Lech Lecha,, Dr Anisfeld expands on this theme, suggesting that we all have to make a journey like Abraham did, to discover our own relationship with God. She cites the Sefat Emet, who teaches that we can only forge this relationship “by leaving behind the entrapments of our normal, everyday life. There is something about routine that makes one unthinking and unseeing. We need to somehow shed the impediments of the norm in order to allow ourselves to become a bri’ah hadashah, “a new being.””
She notes that Abraham’s ability to set forth and stay on his path, to grow and to change, was his strength. He embarked at the command of “lech lecha” – of walking or going forth, accepting the ongoing challenge of not stagnating in the same spiritual spot. Dr Anisfeld concludes, “Are we such travelers? Do we have the strength to shed the bonds that hold us in place, that keep us in the past? Do we hear and heed the call to go forth, to keep changing, ever becoming new beings, ever learning to see the world and God afresh, like our first ancestor? As the Sefat Emet says, the call is there. It’s just a matter of learning to hear it.”

*Rabbi Moshe Greenwald (1853–1911), was the Rav of Huszt, Hungary and progenitor of the Puppa Hasidic dynasty through his five sons. He authored Arugat Habosem, a book of responsa covering a wide breadth of halachic issues.
He was one of a group of students of the Ktav Sofer who took on Hasidic customs, and was also a disciple of the second Belzer Rebbe, Rabbi Yehoshua Rokeach.
Rabbi Greenwald began his rabbinic career as the Rabbi and Av Beit Din in Homonna in Hungary, where he established a yeshiva. From there he accepted the rabbinate of Kisvárda and in 1887 he moved to Huszt where he also headed a yeshiva. He eschewed pilpul (a method of studying the Talmud through intense textual analysis in attempts to either explain conceptual differences between various halachic rulings or to reconcile any apparent contradictions presented from various readings of different texts) but advised his students to acquire breadth and depth in the study of Torah and Gemara.

**Not to be confused with another book of the same title, Arugat Habosem, which is a commentary on piyyutim by Rabbi Avraham ben Azriel, circa 1230.

Noah – The Tower of Babel

That is why it was called Babel because there the Lord confounded the speech of the whole earth… (Bereishit 11:9).

The Tower of Babel

to you
or you
to me
fire signals
morse code
radio and
taped (and
fax machines
cellular phones
communications satellites
short messaging services
internet – the world wide web
emails chats blogs messaging skype
facebook myspace linkedin twitter
communication at light speed
 “That is why it was called Babel
because there the Lord
confounded the speech
 of the whole earth.”
Do understand each other better now?

Noah – The Rainbow

When the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures, all flesh that is on earth. (Bereishit 9:16).

The Rainbow

When the rainbow
appears in the clouds,
will you see and remember?

I forswore destruction.
Will you save the earth
and its untold species?

I inverted the bow:
a weapon transformed.
Will you pursue peace?

I forged but one human race.
Will you cherish the beauty
of the spectrum’s every shade?

In recent years, the Shabbat on which we read Parashat Noah has become one of the Shabbatot on which environmental issues are emphasized. This week’s Parasha describes the maintenance of biodiversity (the degree of variation of life forms) recounting the careful preservation of every species on earth in Noah’s ark. The text describes the instruction to take a male and female of every animal species. The Midrash adds that after the flood, the world was defoliated and bare. Noah and his family had stored in the ark seeds of all plants and trees, which they  then sowed in order to “green the planet”.

Symbolized by the rainbow, God made a covenant with Noah and his descendants and indeed all living creatures, never again to destroy the world. Yet human activity is causing insidious destruction. Rapid environmental changes typically cause mass extinctions. One estimate is that less than 1%-3% of the species that once existed on Earth are still extant.  The period since the emergence of humans has displayed an ongoing biodiversity reduction caused mainly  by human activity, particularly habitat destruction.

The rainbow is symbolic in other ways. The Ramban suggests that the rainbow in the sky is an inverted bow. Such a bow would be pointing arrows away from the earth – a sign of peace.

R’ Samson Raphael Hirsch brings a beautiful teaching about the rainbow. He says that the rainbow is one complete, pure, white ray of light, broken up into seven colours, which he interprets as a symbol of the manifold variety not only of all living creatures, but specifically of humanity. He says, “God unites them together in one common bond of peace, all fragments of one life, all refracted rays of the one spirit of God, even the lowest, darkest, most distant one [is] still a son of the light.”

Noah – A Tsaddik in Pelts

A Tsaddik in Pelts

R’ Jacob would say,
This world is an antechamber
before the World to Come.
Ready yourself in the antechamber
that you may enter the banquet hall.

The chamber is warm,
suffused with the golden glow
of God’s dreams for His world,
where Man prepares
to approach His throne.

A bone-chilling wind
blasts through the room:
smouldering embers
crumble to ash.
Man stands shivering.

Only Noah holds the key.
He could warm the world.
Rekindle the fire, Noah!
But Noah wraps himself in his fur coat
and alone, is ready to enter.

In the verse from Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) 4:16, R’ Jacob taught that by good actions in this life, we prepare ourselves for life in the world-to-come.

On the phrase, “Noah walked with God, ” (Bereishit 6:9),  R’ Moses Alshekh taught that Noah walked with God but not with people. He seemed oblivious to the others in the world around him, concentrating only on himself and his family. Commanded by God to build an ark, he took many years to do so and never in all that time did he think of trying to save the people and the world around him.

Chassidic master Rabbi Mendel of Kotzk spoke of a tzaddik im peltz – a righteous person in a fur coat. The Kotzker explained that in the freezing winter, one has two options to get warm: to kindle a fire or to put on a fur coat. Both of these would warm the person. But kindling a fire would warm other people in the vicinity, while a fur coat would only warm the one wearing it. Noah’s righteousness only “warmed” himself.


Noah – Noah’s first descendant

These are the descendants of Noah. – Noah was a righteous man; he was blameless in his age; Noah walked with God. Noah begot three sons…(Bereishit 6:9,10) And Noah did just as God commanded him, so he did. (Bereishit 6:22) 

Noah’s first descendant
These are the descendants of Noah:
The first person you sired
was yourself.
The world around was evil.
You had to decide
who you really were
and how you would live.

A righteous man, blameless in his age.
Were you upright, only
compared with your neighbours?
Or were you as resistant to rot
as gopher wood,
as impervious to depravity
as black pitch?

And Noah did just as God commanded him.
Is that all it takes to be virtuous?
Just obey the commandments,
no questions asked.
Were there no bystanders
worthy of salvation?
Or did it demand all your strength
to keep yourself unsullied?

Rashi says that since, after stating “These are the descendants of Noah…” the text does not immediately mention the names of his children, but declares that he “was a righteous man”, the Torah is teaching us that the real progeny of righteous people are their good deeds. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch elaborates by noting that in a time like Noah’s, it would have required a great effort to save oneself from succumbing to the surrounding depravity so the first “product” of an upright person would be himself. As the JPS commentary (the Etz Hayim) says, the first person Noah “gave birth to” was himself.

The phrase, “A righteous man, blameless in his age” has given rise to much debate, particularly when comparing Noah to Abraham. In the Talmud (Sanhedrin 108a) R’ Yohanan argues that Noah was righteous only in comparison to his wicked compatriots. In a more moral age, he says, Noah would have been no better than average. Resh Lakish, however, contends that anyone who remained moral in such an evil society would have been even more exemplary in a more pious generation. The Midrash addresses the phrase, “Noah walked with God”, comparing Noah to Abraham, who “walked before God”. Chazal point out that a father takes a young, immature child by the hand and walks with him, while an older, more mature child walks ahead of him. Thus, they conclude, Abraham was the moral superior of Noah.

An obvious comparison between Abraham and Noah is that Noah simply accepted the fate of the other people without trying to ascertain whether there was anyone who could be saved, while Abraham argued with God over the projected destruction of the inhabitants of Sodom and Gemorrah. Morris Adler, in The Torah: A Modern Commentary, says that Noah seems to have been standing apart, never expressing a single word of concern for the rest of the world. He calls this a fatal flaw which resulted in Noah not becoming the father of  a new people or religion.