This week's portion: first step
On Transformative Works

Leaving the ark (Radical Torah repost)

As noted earlier this week, I'm reposting my old Radical Torah divrei Torah here, since RT seems to have disappeared. (It's such a bummer when a beloved website goes offline and takes so many people's writing with it!) After this post, I'll post my d'var on Lech Lecha -- this week's portion -- and then I'll be caught up with the weekly reading cycle. Anyway: what follows is my d'var Torah on last week's portion, Noach, from 2006.

A midrash reads: Once the waters had abated, Noah should have left the ark. However, Noah said to himself, "I entered with God's permission, as it says, 'Go into the ark' (7:1). Shall I now leave without permission?" The Holy One, blessed be God, said to him, "Is it permission, then, that you are seeking? Very well, then, here is permission," as it is said 'Come out of the ark.' Rabbi Yehudah bar Ilai said: "If I had been there I would have broken down the ark and taken myself out."

Noah is a fascinating character. On the one hand, he's held up as an exemplar: righteous among the men of his generation, keeper of the world's animal biodiversity, the only one permitted to survive the deluge. On the other hand, he's seen sometimes in a pretty negative light; one thread of commentary suggests that he only looks righteous in comparison with the wicked layabouts who populated the world in his days.

He's also, as the midrash cited above implies, fairly passive. When God declares the coming Flood, Noah doesn't ask why, or attempt to defend humanity; he just sets about building his craft. And after the flood, he seems to be fishing for an excuse to stay aboard. He's become comfortable there. He's familiar with every plank of the floating home he constructed, and he can't bear to leave.

I can't help feeling some empathy for the guy in that regard. Imagine what it must have felt like, to realize that the waters had receded and that it was time to leave the place he had built and begin a new life. To do the hard work of beginning again.

Maybe Noah's reluctant to leave the ark because he knows, on some level, that once he does he's going to get himself into a world of trouble. He plants a vineyard, the text tells us, and from its produce gets completely drunk. (There's a great midrash which suggests Satan collaborated with Noah on that.) He gets so drunk that he collapses naked in his tent, where his sons find him. Ham "sees his father's nakedness," and tells his brothers what he saw. Shem and Yafet back decorously into the tent and drop a cloak over their father, and when Noah wakes he curses the descendants of the son who saw him in disgrace.

It's a difficult story for us to read. Many commentators interpret the text to suggest that Ham raped his father in his inebriated state -- an appalling assertion, though one which might justify Noah's curse of Ham's progeny. On the other hand, the vengefulness reflected in Noah's curse is pretty distressing, too, especially if one favors the reading which doesn't imply sexual assault. And beyond that, what are we to make of the fact that even the best man in his generation turns into an angry drunk once he's back on dry land?

I don't excuse Noah's error or his outburst, but I'd like to understand them. Reading the story through a psychological lens, I suspect Noah suffered from survivor's guilt. Everyone else in his generation had been washed away; that had to be traumatic. I wonder, too, whether Noah's angry response to Ham might resonate for anyone who has exposed the painful secret of a family member's alcoholism. (And indeed, one of the commentaries I read this week, Rabbi Rosalind Gold's contribution to Ten Minutes of Torah, suggests that Shem and Yafet did their father a disservice in covering up his substance abuse.) Maybe this story is compelling in part because it's so recognizable to us.

I can't help connecting all of this with Noah's reluctance to leave the ark. He built a structure to house a pivotal phase of his life, and when that phase had ended he found himself unready to venture out into the wide world. The ark might have seemed almost womblike, and Noah was in no hurry to be reborn. He knew that once he re-entered the world, the work of rebuilding humanity awaited him. Maybe it's no wonder he fell apart once the pressure of piloting the ark was gone...and once the realization that his work wasn't yet over had set in.

There is always more to do. As long as we live and breathe, our work isn't done. On my good days, I find that truth reassuring. The work of assisting God in creating a perfected world is never complete, which means it's okay that it's taking us a really long time. No one is expected to complete the work of healing the broken world, or the work of growing into a completely finished human being.

On my less-good days, I find that truth daunting in the extreme. Some part of me wants to wail, what do you mean I'm never going to be done? The notion of an endless to-do list fills me with anguish and I want to crawl back into bed and pull the covers over my head. On those days, I'm a little bit like Noah, reluctant to leave the ark. Inside the ark, at least, the task list is manageable and familiar; outside the ark, the entire world in need of repair awaits.

Noah can be an object lesson in the danger of what my friend S. calls "turtling" -- giving in to the impulse to curl up someplace safe and warm when life gets too overwhelming. The temptation is understandable, but ultimately we owe it to the world, and to ourselves, to leave the nest and take one more step toward the reality we want to have a hand in helping to create.

Noah wasn't able to leave the ark gracefully, and the issues he couldn't face brought him shame and curses. When we encounter transitions in our own lives from the relative safety of an enclosed space to the terrifying freedom of limitless possibility, may we be able to move forward with wisdom and equanimity. That way we can be righteous in our own generations, like Noah our forebear -- but without his passivity or his problems.