By Rabbi Vernon Kurtz, Torah Columnist
Torah Portion: Noach (Genesis 6:9−11:32)
The Torah informs us: “Noach and Noach’s sons Shem, Ham and Japheth went into the Ark with Noach’s wife and the three wives of his sons.” Until it was safe for them to come onto the land, they stayed on that Ark along with all the animals. When G-d commands Noach to exit the Ark after the flood, G-d states: “Come out of the Ark, together with your wife, your sons, and your sons’ wives.” If you are sensitive to the nuances of the language, you will notice that when Noach and his family entered the Ark husbands and wives are listed separately, when they leave husbands and wives are listed together.
Commenting on the separation of the men and women in Noach’s family upon entering the Ark, Rashi states: “The men separately and the women separately: marital relations were prohibited during a time when the world was engulfed in sorrow and tragedy.” It did not seem appropriate for Noach and his family to carry on with life, complete with the pleasure of intimate relations, at a time when destruction rained down upon the earth. When the flood waters had abated, G-d tells Noach that husbands and wives no longer need be separate, they can resume family relations.
However, when Noach and his family do leave the Ark, the text reads as follows: “So Noach came out, together with his sons, his wife, and his sons’ wives.” In other words, if we are again sensitive to the biblical language, Noach did not follow G-d’s dictate. He separated the sexes on their exit from the Ark just as he had done when they entered it.
Why did Noach not adhere to G-d’s command? Perhaps Noach was paralyzed by the scene that stood before him. As he looked out at the world he saw devastation and destruction. He was immobilized by fear and did not believe he could be successful in building a new world. He may have felt that if the Creator of the world did not show compassion for his creatures, why should he attempt to create a new world by populating it?
G-d encourages Noach to go forward by blessing him and offering the promise that never again will a flood destroy the entire earth. Everything now hinges upon Noach and his family and their response. Is Noach up to the task? Will he be immobilized by fear and paralysis or will he move forward to create a family of nations?
Others, too, have been faced with the same dilemma. In the aftermath of World War II, survivors of the Shoah emerged from ghettos, concentration camps, forests, and other places of hiding, to face a world similar to Noach’s after the flood. These survivors had witnessed unspeakable cruelty and horror. Their world had been totally destroyed, their families murdered. They could have easily been paralyzed by fear, immobilized by what they saw.
However, for the betterment of the Jewish people and all humanity, in almost all cases, that was not their response. With unimaginable strength and indomitable spirit, these survivors rebuilt their worlds. They married, had children and grandchildren, and rebuilt the Jewish people.
But we don’t have to think in such grandiose heroic terms. Each day, there are people immobilized by fear, unable to move forward because they can’t predict what the next moment will be.
Two farmers happened to meet at the fence that divided their fields. One was asked by his neighbor: “John, what are you going to plant this year? Corn?” John said, “Nope, scared of corn borers.” Said the neighbor, “What about potatoes?” Again John responded, “Nope, too much danger of potato bugs.” A third time the neighbor inquired, “What are you going to plant?” John answered, “Nothing, I am going to play it safe.”
If we don’t plant, then we won’t have any crop failures, but neither will we have any harvest. If we don’t try new ventures in business we will not have any losses, but neither will we have any profits. Unless you try and take the risk, you will never achieve anything. Thomas Edison had so many failures in his lab that his students were puzzled by his willingness to keep trying. He told them he had great results, 50,000 combinations that would not work. The next day he discovered the formula for the storage battery.
Sometimes it is difficult to move forward. We become immobilized by fear, concerned about failure and how we will handle it. It is sometimes easier not to take risks. However, if we are to succeed at anything we must take a chance, have faith in ourselves and in our ability to persevere.
This was not Noach. Noach was immobilized both by his lack of self-confidence and by fear of the unknown. When G-d wanted him to resume family relations, end the gender separation, Noach was not ready to do so. He might even have been willing to have stayed on the Ark for another lengthy period of time. Only later do he and his children re-populate the world once more.
The Torah is filled with lessons, sometimes through simple nuances. In the use of language concerning Noach and his family entering the Ark, being commanded by G-d to exit the Ark, and then actually leaving the Ark, we learn a great deal about Noach and his character as well as about G-d’s wish for all humanity.
Unlike Noach we must venture forth, accept our challenges, and have faith in ourselves and in the future. By the end of the Torah portion, Noach is no longer important; it is Abram who takes center stage. He will follow G-d’s command to travel to a new land, accept challenges which are extremely difficult and be prepared to surmount them. Together with his wife Sarai he went forth to the new Promised Land. Together they assumed the awaiting challenges.
May we follow their path and be successful in our endeavors.
Rabbi Vernon Kurtz is rabbi of North Suburban Synagogue Beth El (Conservative).