This week we read the story of Noah and the deluge. This is one of the Torah’s best-known tales. It is the subject of countless children’s books and songs, and with its colorful rainbow and menagerie of animals, it is a favorite of illustrators as well. I will admit I have always found this a bit odd, since it is also one of our tradition’s most troubling stories—in which God, to be blunt, commits genocide. The destruction of every living thing on earth is pretty much the opposite of cute.
One would think that after many months in tight closed quarters with a bunch of animals, Noah and his family would be eager to leave the ark as soon as the flood waters recede. But according to the Midrash, this is not the case. God must actually command Noah to leave, insisting: “Go out—leave the ark—you and your wife and your sons and your sons’ wives with you.” Noah is inclined to tarry in this big, smelly sealed wooden box; he only departs after God insists.
Why this reluctance? Some of the commentators suggest that Noah is afraid his descendants will again defile God’s newly-created world and bring another flood upon themselves. In other words, Noah is paralyzed by his fear of what the future may bring. Others propose that Noah has simply become accustomed to his admittedly unpleasant and yet comfortably familiar surroundings. For him, the terror of the unknown—the re-established world outside the ark—is more powerful than the desire to escape his difficult current situation.
So often we, too, find ourselves in these circumstances. Change is frightening. We choose the devil we ” know rather than setting off into the wilderness that we don’t.
But sometimes we simply must go forward. God—or fate, or circumstances, or life—knocks on the portal, as it were, and tells us that we have to come out, move ahead, and face the unknown. This is the way we grow. A new world cannot be born until Noah emerges, despite his fear. So, too, for us. Interestingly, the Hebrew word for the ark—“tevah”—also means a casket. To remain in that closed, familiar world is, essentially, to choose stagnancy and death over life.
In this season of new beginnings, may we find the strength, faith, and courage to leave our “arks.