Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Torah Talk on Noach 5779
The Torah portion of Noach highlights one of the greatest construction heroes of all time, Noah, an amateur carpenter who created the huge structure that saved the human race from complete destruction. Considering the tools he had to work with, and the challenging time frame his supervisor, God, gave the contractor for delivery, the ark must be considered an extraordinary developer’s accomplishment. From the time the RFP was released until the first drops of rain hit the skylight in the ark, Noah did exactly what he was ordered to do. And this great construction project not only was completed within budget and on time—talk about a fixed deadline!—but it succeeded in doing something that had never before been done. This was a project that truly floated high, riding out the storm to reach the top of the mountain.
I have often seen the Noah story as a metaphor for a synagogue. A temple should be a kind of ark of refuge from the tides and tribulations of the events of the world, a place where we can come to pray and study and find inspiration and holiness. But like the ark, we too must open the window and see just what is going on outside, see if it’s still raining, let the air and light in and judge whether it is the right time and climate to break free from the ark and export ourselves and our ideas onto the land.
Within the ark it must have been like the inside of a Temple: lots of different species in a confined space requiring special attention from the captain, who actually has very little control over where the whole thing is going, but puts his trust in God. But a Temple is also supposed to be a safe, protected, nurturing place, in which relationships, ideas, and dreams can grow amid the general cacophony. And like the ark, when we denizens of the Temple finally land we bring out into the world all the great lessons that we have germinated in this ship. We celebrate the covenant, the berit between God and ourselves, and share that with the world.
There are actually two construction stories in Noach. In addition to this very famous story of Noah’s ark and its aftermath, our portion ends with the tale of the construction of the Tower of Babel. This is a much shorter story, with a very different conclusion.
The Babel story tells us that the people of the world were all of one kind, and spoke one language. They communicated easily with one another, and decided that they would construct a city with a tower that reached the heavens to make them famous, and they would thereafter never be scattered over the face of the earth. God defeats their vainglorious, ego-driven project by making communication impossible, babbling their speech so that they cannot understand one another. The net result of their efforts is that they are scattered over the earth, exactly what they were striving to prevent.
The purpose of the Tower of Babel construction was to build a tower that reached the heavens and established the fame of humanity, or at least its leaders. It was an effort to serve the needy egos of people. This contrasts directly with the purpose of the construction of the ark, which was to build a sanctuary to save humans and animals from destruction. God encourages, in fact orders the ark; God blocks the permits of the Tower of Babel, causing its failure. The Ark is good because it rescues living souls from destruction. The Tower of Babel is bad, because its sole purpose is to slake the lusty egotistical needs of the selfish people.
In truth, in any project we engage in we must evaluate whether we are doing it for God or for ourselves, whether we are actually seeking to navigate the dangerous waters and bring real rescue, or whether we are constructing a monument to our temporal egos. Building can and should be very good. But in order to be so it must reflect the best of our ideals, our own Torah, if you will. It must be much more Ark than Tower.
The outside world’s chaos will always be there. We will not subdue the outside world by power, nor can we construct towers to surmount it. But we can create, in our own synagogue, in our own homes, in our own lives, an ark of refuge, nurture and sanctity. May we choose to do so to the best of our abilities, on this Shabbat of Noah, and always.