Creation had gone awry.
The world had become corrupt.
Greed, contempt, and a complete disregard of others
Had become the mode of being.
But Noah found favor in God's sign,
And he was chosen to build a teva, an ark…
This poem from Rabbi Yael Levy's commentary on Parashat Noach in her book Directing the Heart brought my attention to the place Noah might have found himself when God told him to build the ark. Aware of how broken the world was, Noah had the opportunity to act – to rise above destruction and contribute to rebirth by saving his family and the animal world.
I wonder what it would be like to be offered a choice to save our world. How would I respond? Would I recognize the voice of God? Would I seize the opportunity to lead?
At this moment in our world, I fear the answer is no. When I am offered opportunities to make a difference, I often weigh them against my own instincts on how much they will help create change. Today, I received a text from a friend to contribute to food for shiva. I responded immediately. I also received a request for a campaign donation, and I wondered what effect that might have. I find that, if I can't see the result of my actions and I don't have the personal experience or expertise, my willingness to help can shift. The overwhelming feeling of brokenness makes me doubt the impact that my actions can take. I stop relying on those that might know more than me and doubt clouds my judgment.
As I look to the text of this week's Torah portion, I notice that there is a specific description of the animals on the ark and of those that are going to be destroyed. In Genesis 6:17 we read, "For My part, I am about to bring the Flood - waters upon the earth - to destroy all flesh under the sky in which there is breath of life." The same term, breath of life, Ruach HaChaim, appears in verse 7:15, "They came to Noah into the ark, two each of all flesh in which there was breath of life." It is used only one other time in the Torah, later in chapter 7, when describing the living creatures that died.
The word ruach describes the presence of God in the Garden of Eden. The creatures that participated in the destruction of the world, those that were bystanders, and those that were saved are all described here as embodying "Ruach HaChaim." If we know that every word in the Torah is there to teach us a lesson, we can look towards this specific language for guidance.
Noah was told by that he God that he would be surrounded by those who contain "Ruach HaChaim," the breath of life. The phone calls, the food deliveries, and the donations are all ways that we can encounter someone who has "Ruach HaChaim." The only measurement that we ought to take when trying to decide if our actions can help repair the world is to ask - will this bring me closer to another living being? This was the assurance that God gave to Noah, that during hopelessness, chaos, and distribution he would not be alone on the ark. Noah would not be there just with his family, Noah would be there with animals, each of whom contain the spirit of life. Each of us has the opportunity to seek out encounters that have the potential to remind us of this spirit, the chance to engage in tikkun olam.
Yael Levy's poem concludes with the answers to our questions:
Creation unfolds in mystery
And everything we do matters.
By caring for each other,
For the animals, birds and all the earth,
We create a tzohar, an opening,
For kindness, love and awareness
To shine through.
And with this
The world Is renewed.