• Samuel Lebens

Noah: Leaving the Ark Behind

After Noah's experiments, sending out a raven, and a dove, to search for dry land; after the ark had come to rest on the mountains of Ararat; after Noah opened the window of his ark to see for himself that the waters had receded, God spoke to him (Genesis 8:15-16):


וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר אֱלֹהִ֖ים אֶל־נֹ֥חַ לֵאמֹֽר׃ God spoke to Noah, saying צֵ֖א מִן־הַתֵּבָ֑ה אַתָּ֕ה וְאִשְׁתְּךָ֛ וּבָנֶ֥יךָ וּנְשֵֽׁי־בָנֶ֖יךָ אִתָּֽךְ׃ Go out of the ark, together with your wife, your sons, and your sons’ wives

The implication is that, despite all of his experiments, and his certainty that the danger had gone, Noah wouldn't leave the ark without an explicit commandment from God.


On some readings of Noah's personality, this is to be expected. One of my teachers, Rabbi Chanoch Waxman, points out that, the Torah has a distinctive way of describing Noah's relationship with God.


Sure, the Bible tells us, explicitly, that Noah was righteous (6:9; 7:1), that he walked with God (6:9), and that he found favour in God's eyes (6:8). But beyond these blanket assertions of Noah's righteousness, the Torah also has a subtler way of describing Noah's religious persona. In the narrative of the construction of the ark, God's commandments and instructions are invariably followed by an explicit assertion that "Noah did according to all that God commanded him; so he did" (6:22; 7:1-4). Rabbi Waxman teases out the significance of this narrative device:

Rabbi Chanoch Waxman
The term "command" (and its [Hebrew root]) has appeared in only one other context until this point. This is in fact the term utilized to describe God's forbidding the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge (2:16). Likewise... God inquires whether [Adam] has "eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?" (3:11). Unlike Adam and Eve, who proved themselves incapable of obeying the simple command of not eating a particular fruit, Noach proves himself capable of obeying the most arduous commands. Noach does not evade, disobey or even reply. He simply carries out God's word, no matter how Herculean the task, no matter the size of the boat, the number of animals to be gathered or the amount of food to be collected. Noach's uniqueness lies not just in his uprightness and morality, but also in his obedience to the command of God.

Noah's religious persona is typified by quiet, unquestioning obedience - subservience to God's will. In some sources, Noah is criticised for this sort of subservience (not, I hasten to add by Rabbi Waxman, whose reading of the story is much more nuanced).


When the Torah describes Noah as righteous "in his generation" (6:9), Rashi cites a Talmudic debate: does this description speak to Noah's credit or to his detriment? Rabbi Yochanan suggests that it speaks to his detriment: it's not so hard to stand out as righteous in a generation famed for its depravity. Had Noah lived in better times, his species of righteousness would have been unremarkable. Reish Lakish disagrees: if Noah was able to lead a righteous life in the midst of such depravity, imagine the heights to which he would have soared had he benefited from the moral education and support to be found in an upright generation (Tractate Sanhedrin 108).


Taking its lead from Rabbi Yochanan, and various other Midrashim, the Zohar suggests - indeed, it suggests in the name of Rabbi Yochanan, that Noah's subservience compares poorly to the moral courage of later exemplars of righteousness (Zohar, Parshat Noah, 67b):


Noah did not defend his generation, nor did he pray for them, as Abraham did. When the Holy One, blessed be He, said to Abraham [that he was about to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah] ... immediately Abraham began to pray before the Holy One, blessed be He, until he asked whether, if ten good people could be found, would God forgive the entire place because of them ... Later, Moses came, prayed for, and defended his generation. When the Holy One, Blessed be he, said to him, "They have strayed quickly from the way [in which I commanded them]," immediately, Moses stood and prayed.

Indeed, Abraham was willing to argue with God for the sake of the innocent. And Moses was even more strident - he was willing to put his own legacy on the line, saying that he would rather be blotted out of God's book than to watch God punish the Children of Israel, and, as the Zohar goes on to claim (Zohar, Parshat Vayera 105b), Moses was even praying for a community that deserved to be punished; he wasn't merely praying in the hope that there were some innocent people who could redeem the rest. More daring than Abraham, Moses wouldn't have stopped praying just because there weren't ten righteous people to pray for.


Noah's subservience, according to the Zohar, is what renders his variety of righteousness less praiseworthy than the forms of righteousness to be seen in later generations. Noah does what God tells him. No questions asked. There's clearly something positive about that, but the real heros of the Torah are willing to question God, and plea for his mercy on behalf of others.


On this reading of Noah's personality, it isn't surprising that he wouldn't leave the ark without an explicit commandment to do so. Indeed, a Midrash (Tanchuma (Buber), Noach 15:1) imagines that, once the ark had come to a rest, and it was clear to everyone that it was safe to leave, Noah's sons had to approach him, and say:


"Let us go out." He said to them, "Heaven forbid! At the behest of the Holy One we entered, and at the behest of the Holy One we will leave." When the Holy One heard [these words], He immediately gave them permission, as it is written "And God spoke to Noah, saying, Go out of the ark".

There's almost something comical about this Midrash (although, in context, Noah is actually being praised).


Here is a servant of God, so lacking in his own initiative that even when it's clear to everybody that something has to be done, he isn't willing to do it without an explicit command; a command that God hadn't thought it necessary to issue, until - so to speak - he realised that Noah wouldn't budge without being told to. It's hard not to sympathise with the frustration of his children, in this text. It's hard not to hear that frustration echoing in the words of God Himself.


But this isn't the only way to understand the commandment to leave the ark.


It's far from obligatory that we read passive-submission into the character of Noah, despite the Rabbinic pedigree of this school of thought. In fact, we can easily resist the comparison that renders Abraham more praiseworthy in this respect, and Moses more praiseworthy still. In fact, the claim that Abraham is willing to argue with God's commandments looses a lot of its force when he utters not a single word in defense of his own son when God seems to call for his sacrifice.


In a similar vein, Rabbi Isaac Shmulevitz (1898-1941) points out, in his book, Mimakor Hanetzach, that initially Moses prayed to enter the land of Israel, when told of God's edict that he wouldn't reach the promised land, and yet, decades later, when he's commanded to ascend the mountain to his death (Deuteronomy 32:50), he doesn't try to argue his case again. Why? Rabbi Shmulevitz's answer:


When [Moses] heard from the Holy One, blessed be He, "die on the mountain that you will ascend", he saw in this [the opportunity] to comply with a positive commandment, and he accepted it with love.

The idea seems to be this: when God reveals things to his prophets, they will often question, argue back, debate, and even protest. But when God commands a righteous person, he or she obeys without question. When Abraham was told of God's plans to destroy Sodom, he protested. But when he was commanded to sacrifice his son, he obeyed. When Moses was told of God's plan to wipe out the Jewish people, and his plan to prevent Moses from reaching the promised land, he protested. But when God commanded him to ascend the mountain to his death, he obeyed without question. Noah wasn't simply told of God's plans. He was commanded. And he did what he was told as any prophet would have done.


Accordingly, and despite the richness of the interpretative tradition in question, we are not compelled to read excessive submissiveness into the character of Noah. But if Noah isn't understood in this light, then how are we to make sense of God's seemingly otiose commandment to leave the ark?

A Sukka

Another possible interpretation also draws from the Zohar. The Zohar (III.256a) likens Noah's ark to Sukkot - the huts that the Jews lived in during their wandering in the wilderness; the huts that we re-build and dwell within, each year during the festival of Sukkot [Tabernacles]. Moreover, the Sukka itself represents the Divine presence that surrounds us and protects us (Ibid.).


Who would want to leave such a place? God wants us to populate the world, to build it, sustain it, and to for us to flourish in so doing. Sometimes, it's tempting to abstain from these worldly pursuits and to take refuge in places of holiness and religious rapture. But sometimes we have to leave the ark and get our hands dirty tending to the world. There's a time for prayer and meditation, there's time to be in the Sukka, but there's also a time for action.


It doesn't matter that the water had receded -- life itself remains like a flood. Real life, with its tumult and constant insecurities, is like living in the tempest and waves of the deluge. The ark is a symbol of the security that can come from taking refuge in introverted forms of religious piety - it is a symbol of retreating into the ghetto. But God doesn't want us to live in the ghetto. He wants us to take part in the world. For that reason, Noah is commanded to leave the ark.


There's something satisfying about this reading, symbolically. But it doesn't sit too easily with the story itself. If we try to situate ourselves in the story, taken literally (if only for the sake of engaging with the story), then I can't imagine that the ark could have been such a nice place to be. I can't imagine that it would have been a place conducive to prayer, meditation, and study. The Midrash (Tanchuma, Noah 9) imagines quite vividly how horrible, noisy, distracting, and time consuming it would have been:


R. Levi said: For the entire twelve months [in the ark], they didn't taste the taste of sleep - neither Noah, nor his sons. For they were obliged to feed the animals, the beasts, and the birds. R. Akiba stated that they even brought into the ark tree branches for the elephants and glass beads for the ostriches. Some of the animals had to be fed at the second hour in the night and others at the third hour of the night.

Indeed, imagine the stench, and the noise - and notice that until Noah opened up the trap-door-like window - there would have been no natural light. Imagine, as the rain started to fall, and the denizens of the world started banging on the side of the ark to be let in. The whole experience would have been a terrible trauma. Imagine the sea sickness. Why would Noah want to stay inside the confines of the ark, once he knew that the whole wide world once again lay open to him? Surely such an ark couldn't function as a spiritual refuge. So, why did he wait to be commanded to leave?


In order to come to a new reading - a new answer to our question - let me take a quick detour.


Every morning, Jewish law mandates that the Jew gets up, and prays the morning prayers before its too late. For Jewish men, there's an obligation, where possible, to get our of bed and find a local prayer quorum, of nine other men, with whom to pray. But what happens to a person who is clinically depressed?


Even a mild depression can make it terribly difficult to get out of bed. It's not as if it's nice to lie in bed with one's melancholy. It's not as if it's enjoyable to wallow in the cloud and the darkness that comes with depression. But the bed can play two roles at once - the inability to get out of bed is a symbol of the darkness that haunts you, but the bed is also a comfort, literally and figuratively. So, is a person, suffering from depression, obligated under Jewish law to get out of bed each and every morning? Do they incur guilt when they fail?


To be clear: depression is a medical condition; a disease; and it kills people. What does the halakha [Jewish law], have to say about it?


As far as I'm aware, there isn't much Orthodox Jewish literature that deals with these questions. Thankfully, a teacher of mine, Rabbi Yoni Rosensweig, is in the process of writing a profoundly important book on the halakhic implications of mental-illness. It develops authoritative rulings, based on his extensive halakhic research and expertise, in conversation with competent medical professionals.


Rabbi Yoni Rosensweig

He has been kind enough to share with me some of this, as yet unpublished work. I'm certain that it will be an essential resource for countless observant Jews. Regarding our question, about the person with depression, his ruling is this. Of course, if a person's depression has stricken them to such an extent that they simply cannot function without constant support and supervision, then they can no longer be considered as falling under any halakhic obligations whatsoever. But, a person with clinical depression, so long as their condition hasn't reached that level of severity, is obligated by the laws of prayer, and should strive to fulfill the obligation to pray with a quorum and to pray on time. But then, Rabbi Rosensweig makes a couple of vital qualifications.


First: a person in such a situation is only obligated if (and perhaps only to the extent that) the imposition of these obligations wouldn't pose an obstacle to a person's recovery. Indeed, Rabbi Rosensweig points out that the very notion that a person is obligated to get up in the morning, when this presents him or her with a severe medical challenge, can very well be detrimental to a person's health. It can leave them with feelings of guilt and inadequacy that only exacerbate their psychiatric condition. In those situations, a person is exempt.


But secondly, and contrastingly: Rabbi Rosensweig points out that, just as the imposition of obligations can sometimes pose an obstacle to recovery, so too, in some situations, can the removal of obligations. As he puts it: "A person suffering from clinical depression [sometimes] needs routine and fixed goals that require him to get up in the morning. Accordingly, leaving the obligations of prayer in place can help such a person to alleviate his situation."


In other words, the issues here are very delicate, and any halakhic ruling will have to take into consideration the particular situation at hand. If a person is simply incapable of something, then there is clearly no obligation. But, if telling a person that there is no obligation will be detrimental to their health, then we shouldn't say that the obligation evaporates.


Certainly, when we say that the obligation remains, and even it it really does remain, a person shouldn't beat themselves up when their depression causes them to fail to live up to those obligations. As my teacher, Rabbi Waxman, put it to me: missing a prayer quorum is to violate an obligation of Rabbinic law, but to beat yourself up and damage your self-esteem is to be פוגע בצלם אלוהים - it is to violate the Biblical prohibition against impairing the image of God - a serious sin that occurs when the honour of a human being is disrespected. So, whatever the halakhic status of these obligations during an episode of depression, it certainly isn't appropriate for a person to guilt themselves.


For our purposes, it's interesting to note that - sometimes - the imposition of obligation, routine, goals, regimen, and the like, can be part of a person's therapy. The ark was a place of terrible darkness, but places of terrible darkness can sometimes be very difficult to leave. A depressive episode tends to make people want to curl up into their shell, to retreat into their beds, into themselves, into their Noah's ark. And sometimes, the thing that helps a person to begin to heal; to begin to find a way to climb out of that Ark, is to hear a voice that they respect, a voice that they trust, calling upon them, to do something - issuing them a command.


Franz Rosenzweig

Sometimes, of course, the whole notion of law and obligation can be crushing. It can seem stifling. Franz Rosenzweig made a distinction that can help us make sense of the difference between laws that are crushing and laws that are liberating. The crushing kind, he calls laws (חוקים). The liberating kind, he calls commandments (מצוות). He gets this distinction up and running with the observation that the Bible's injunction that we should love God seems paradoxical:


Can love be commanded? Isn’t love destiny and being deeply touched...? And now it is being commanded? Surely, love cannot be commanded; no third party can command it or obtain it by force.

His answer to this question is that:


The commandment of love can only come from the mouth of the lover. Only the one who loves... can say and does say: Love me. From his mouth, the commandment of love is not a strange commandment, it is nothing other than the voice of love itself.

If a law-book legislates love, then it makes no sense. But a person's gaze can call upon you to love.


A law is a sentence or two in a law book. By contrast, a commandment lives not in a law book but in a gaze, in a relationship, in a voice, person to person. When the obligation to pray is just a bunch of laws, then it can weigh heavily upon us. When a sense of obligation emerges from a cherished relationship, by contrast, the relationship and its obligations - its commandments - can inject meaning into our lives, and light into the darkness.


Noah didn't want to leave the dark confines of his ark, for the opportunities of the new world. So God spoke to him, and in His voice, Noah heard the sort of obligation that can help a person to find meaning in the ruins of an imperfect world; he heard a commandment. And therein lies the greatness that Reish Lakish sees in Noah: here is a person who can hear the voice of God in the midst of inner turmoil; in the despair of a dark night of the soul.


We see that later on in the story, Noah stumbles again - and takes refuge in alcohol (9:21). Nobody said that this was easy. But after that shameful incident (whatever exactly it was), he lived for another 350 years (9:28).


The book of Psalms (142:8) contains the following verse:

ה֘וֹצִ֤יאָה מִמַּסְגֵּ֨ר ׀ נַפְשִׁי֮ לְהוֹד֪וֹת אֶת־שְׁ֫מֶ֥ךָ בִּ֭י יַכְתִּ֣רוּ צַדִּיקִ֑ים כִּ֖י תִגְמֹ֣ל עָלָֽי׃ Free me from prison that I may praise your name The righteous will glory in me because of your gracious dealings with me

According to the Midrash, this was Noah's prayer. He prayed that God would release him from his inner turmoil. And when he heard the voice of God in the midst of his pain, he was released. This led him to reason that one day, the "righteous would glory in me", taking comfort from the fact that if he could do it, then maybe, so can we.




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