And it came to pass, for the sins of the people, a great flood covered the earth. And God warned Noah, for Noah was the righteous of his generation. And God told him how to build an ark, cubit by cubit.
We will never know the historicity of this great flood. Other cultures write of devasting floods, most notably the Babylonian narrative of the Epic of Gilgamesh. But it is clear that the author of the biblical narrative is not interested in giving us an historical account. The author is probing our relationship with God, and God with us, and is in search of a reason for natural phenomenon which causes great disaster.
The author concludes that there is a cause and effect when we sin. God exacts punishment, usually harsh punishment. For the wickedness of the people, the earth would be destroyed. Indeed, this theology of reward and punishment is pervasive in our Torah. I do not believe in a connect-the-dots-deity. I believe that whenever we claim to know cause and effect, we do so with arrogance and hubris.
Years ago, I had a dream. It was more like a night vision. I imagined a tailor in the forest working long into the night by the light of a single candle with only a simple needle and thread. And I thought, if only I could learn to sew, I could mend my life. When I woke, the vision wouldn’t leave me. I searched for its meaning.
And then I found the metaphor. Our lives are like a tapestry. There is a vague picture, and with needle and thread we fill in the colors one stitch at a time. When life is tough, we only see the reverse side of the tapestry, knots and threads that don’t seem to connect. When we feel strong, we see on the front side the picture of who we are, and the trajectory of our life materializes. Either way, it is ours to create, to see, and to decipher.
Then there is another cloth: deep, exquisite black velvet. Beautiful, shimmering with life but opaque. That is God, or rather the mystery. It represents what I can never know, never understand, never see clearly. It belongs to the mystery. And here is the revelation. I do what I can, what is in my control to do, and then release the rest. The tapestry is mine to create. The velvet is mine to behold. I do what I can, what is in my control to do, and then release the rest. I am meant to sew the two pieces of cloth together, the tapestry and the velvet. Faith is living on the seam between what I can know and what I will never know.
So how do we find meaning in this great and curious Noah narrative, even as some of us, me included, reject the theology of reward and punishment. If we do not read this narrative as history, and do not read it as theology, perhaps we can find the meaning within literary conventions. There is meaning in the parable.
Every detail of the ark that Noah is instructed to build is described, including the window: make an opening (tzhar) for light in the ark (6:16). Bartenura, a 16th -century commentator on Rashi, writes that the word for window, tzhar, shares the root for the word tzhariyim, meaning noon. He along with other commentators say that Noah was commanded to build an opening that would let the noon light shine within the ark. This was a window of hope waiting for the new day to dawn; a window to the world, to the heavens, to an external source of help; an opening so that Noah could send forth a messenger, a dove who could search the landscape and let him know that it is safe to emerge.
And indeed, the birds circle the world for dry land. After a while, towards the evening, as the sun begins to set, behold, the dove returns, carrying an olive leaf in its beak, proof that we can begin again. And here Torah offers us a great spiritual metaphor. It is story of the window in the ark, which teaches us the abiding lesson of resilience, for sometimes life imposes upon us great distress. And when it does, Torah teaches through metaphor and allegory: We should be a vessel of safety to weather the storm. And when we do, we shall not forget to build a window, an opening to the world, a way out of our despair, for the ark is not meant to harbor us forever.
The rabbis offer a second explanation for the meaning of window, tzhar. Malbim, a 19-century Hebrew grammarian and Torah scholar, suggests that Noah didn’t build a window but rather the word tzhar refers to a precious stone called zhorit. This stone, he says, is iridescent by its very nature, illuminating from within and, generating its own light. He then uses his metaphoric interpretation to offer a different reading of the prefix “l” in the verse, from place an opening (tzhar) for light to shine into the ark to make an opening for light inside the ark. ;
This stone that generates its own light is a beautiful metaphor for resilience. Meaning is not found within the adversity and tragedy; meaning is found within the inner resources of our being. We regain our balance through the courage it takes to live with mystery and ambiguity. We live in a vast sea of unknowable, confusing, and ambiguous living. There is so much we simply do not know and will never understand. Faith is not blind. Faith is not a simplistic connecting of the dots. Faith takes root within the constant struggle to know the limits of our humanity, living on the seam of what we can know and what is simply unknowable.
So when we find ourselves overwhelmed by trouble and pain, we can build ourselves an ark, a safe haven, with a tzhar, a source of light and resilience.