If we were only to read the Torah, without any commentary or midrash, we would not know much about what went on in Noah’s Ark, save a basic architectural blueprint. It was about 155 meters, or one-and-a-half Canadian football fields long.
What did the people do all day long? What did they think about?
What did the people do all night long? How could they sleep in a zoo?
What did they eat?
Have you thought about the aroma? There was no indoor plumbing.
Was the pitter-patter of the rain always soothing?
Did all of the animals get along? Maybe it was a miracle and they did.
How could we be sure the dogs and cats, and the rhinos and the hippos, and the lions and the tigers stayed in their separate compartments?
How did every animal survive if there was only one climate?
Another question I used to wonder about was how they could see anything in a massively sealed ark. What about Vitamin D?
We read that when God gives Noah the instructions, God says “Make an opening for daylight in the ark.”
If we stopped listening for a just second, we missed it. But among the instructions for building the ark, God told Noah to include a tzohar, likely referring to a window, in addition to three decks.
Even though the purpose of the ark was to protect these select humans and animals from the great flood, it is clear that access to natural light, to be able to see what was happening outside,m was essential for the journey.
On this word, tzohar, Rashi reminds us that some say it was a skylight-like window, while others say that it was a precious stone that gave off a light. Other commentators translate tzohar to mean a pearl or other gemstone.
I align myself with those that claim the tzohar was a window.
I like to imagine that those aboard the ark, perhaps terrified by the flood and the seemingly endless journey, found comfort knowing they were safe inside. The window to the outside world enabled them to differentiate between the whirlwind of rain outside and their safety. The window could have led to a deepening of faith.
Early in the parashat, God said “I am going to bring a flood to blot out everything.”
God in fact did bring a flood to destroy all flesh under the sky, outside of the ark.
Those on the inside could see and were made aware of, but could not touch or actually be outside.
On Wednesday and Thursday afternoon, I sat in my dry office watched rain dancing outside my window. Even though there was no way I could ignore what was happening outside, I was safe and dry. I knew it was raining.
Looking out the window assured me that the grass and trees and bushes were getting watered and drivers and pedestrians were a little frustrated. I could see out to the rest of the world, driving by on Warwick.
Let’s expand on this idea of looking out.
We read in the Talmud, in Brakhot, that Rabbi Ḥiyya bar Abba said that Rabbi Yoḥanan said “A person can only daven in a place that has a window.”
Classically, the rabbis understood this text to mean that a makom tefillah, a synagogue sanctuary, requires a window. Yosef Caro, in the Shulchan Aruch, tightens this idea even more and writes, “It is necessary to open openings or windows facing Jerusalem, so as to pray opposite them.”
He also prefers 12 windows. Clearly some of this has been lost, but most agree that we need at least one window when we come as a community to talk with God, harking back to the tzohar on the Ark.
Why would we need a window in the room where we pray?
Many link this requirement to the need to be able to see the heavens above us for inspiration while we pray. That could work well if a skylight was required, but that is not the word used.
Beth Tzedec is a world class shul, and one of the largest in the world. If we can think metaphorically for a minute, Beth Tzedec can be likened to an ark, or at least the goal of Noah’s ark.
We separate ourselves from the world around us to protect our values from hostile forces that could undermine them. There is 24/7 security in this building. Baruch HaShem, we are protected.
Many of us visit shul for prayer and study so that we can close off the distractions and temptations of the outside world. Personally, in my rabbinate, I decided years ago never to preach politics du jour from the bimah on Shabbat. That is my style... plus, it gives me more opportunities during the week to study Torah.
But as we know, there are threats to our safety and there are threats to our spiritual identity out there. Just this week, two men posed as cable workers from Rogers tried to enter a local yeshiva. But Rogers had no idea who they were.
Most of us come to shul to take care of business that can’t be easily done out there, for soul work. A shul is like an ark, preserving Jewish life from an assimilated and hostile world.
But even Noah, safe, secure and warm in his ark, had a connection to the outside world because the ark had a window. That window enabled him to send out a raven, and then to send out a dove, and ultimately, that window permitted him to leave the ark and to resettle the earth.
I think it is important that Beth Tzedec has all of the security measures in place that it does and that we don’t hide our heads in the sand about the dangers of the world. But at the same time, we cannot become so traumatized by fear that we close ourselves off completely with no connection to anything that happens outside.
We need to see out.
That is why the ark needed a window.
That is why a davening space needs a window.
We cannot live in a bubble, nor is it helpful to say inside our own echo chambers all day long.
The existence of the tzohar, the window, begs Noah to bear witness to the suffering taking place outside of the ark. But I’m not sure he does that.
Instead of being aware of the events unfolding outside of the ark, he goes out of his way to remain oblivious. We read that as the storm settles, “Noah removed the covering of the ark.”
At no point was Noah instructed to place a cover over the ark. It seems that rather than watch the suffering of others, Noah hid from it and used the ark as a cocoon to shelter himself and his family from the horrors being suffered by the rest of humanity.
Maybe it was because Noah feared the devastation outside his bubble.
Maybe Noah felt the need to remain isolated during the flood, and thus covered the tzohar in order to have the strength to carry out his God-given mission of securing the continued existence of life on earth.
But that does not sit well with me. Ideally, Noah should have left the window uncovered and witnessed the true extent of the suffering. Instead, he hid.
Spirituality and the desire to belong to Jewish community and to daven does not overshadow our obligation to be aware of the dire needs in the world. We cannot pull the curtain over the window and ignore the plight of those facing challenges around the globe.
We cannot worry that we will be traumatized by trying to address the suffering of others. We learn in Pirkei Avot that it is not our duty to finish the work, but neither are we at liberty to neglect it.
We learn from our parashat the importance of looking out past our dalet amot, immediate surroundings, into the world. Yes, some days this can exhaust our emotional energy. Some days it can require us to write a cheque or to make lifestyle changes, like using paper straws, reusable bags or less-flattering light bulbs. It can even raise deeply troubling theological questions about justice.
It is totally human to wish to shelter ourselves from time to time, so as not to be overwhelmed. I do it every Shabbat. But God is constantly calling on us to “Leave the Ark!”
Since arriving in Toronto, I have been in a Beth Tzedec and a Fryer family bubble. I am ignorant to what is going on in the world unless it comes up on my Facebook feed.
Tomorrow, I am taking my own advice and I am going to subscribe to a newspaper. During kiddush, please share your opinions on which local paper I should get.
We can’t live in our bubbles, or our arks, without a window into the world. God doesn’t want that for us. We each have our own tzohar, our own window into the outer world. They come in all shapes and sizes. What is yours? When do you cover it? Why?
Things to think about as you stare out the window.