This week, we read the story of Noah and the flood. You might be familiar with it as a cute kid’s story about finding two of each animal and bringing them into a giant boat. Or perhaps you think of this as a tale of destruction, or a story of re-birth and fresh starts. But perhaps the most powerful lesson of this week’s Torah portion is about hope. Ultimately, the story of Noah teaches us that when the world seems to be ending, we should hold on to hope.
We find messages of hope strewn throughout this story. Before Noah even builds the ark, God gives Noah a message of hope. When God commands Noah to build the ark, God gives Noah basic instructions. Noah is given a list of materials and a list of dimensions. He is then instructed to “make a window in the ark, that ends one arm’s length from the top of the ark. Make an entrance to the ark on its side; and make a bottom, second, and third deck.” (Genesis 6:16)
On the surface, there is nothing noteworthy about these verses. They simply comprise a construction manual. But if we think about it, there is actually something remarkable about these instructions. Of course the ark needs waterproof materials, and a door through which to enter. But why does the ark need a window? What function could the window possibly serve? The thick covering of clouds that I can only imagine accompanies a 40-day long rainstorm must have meant there would be no sunlight coming through that window. The window’s purpose, then, was not to see the outside world during the rain. Its purpose must have been to give Noah hope. Hope that there would be life after the flood. Hope that no matter how dark it gets, light will eventually return.
Hope is also expressed in the ark’s very cargo: loading at least two of each animal, one male and one female, carries with it a message of hope about the re-birth of creation after so much destruction.
But perhaps most importantly, we find the message of hope in Noah’s final few actions on the ark. After the storm has passed, after the waters begin to subside, Noah opens the window – that very same window that served as a ray of hope throughout the flood, and sends out a raven, to see if it can find dry land. But the raven returns. There is no hope of leaving the ark yet. So Noah waits, and then sends out a dove – but the dove, too, returns.
At this point in the narrative, none of us could blame Noah for giving up hope. He was told that there would be a flood for 40 days, but after 40 days of rain, it was still unsafe to leave the boat, so Noah waited, and waited. The Torah tells us that Noah entered the ark in the second month of his 600th year (Gen. 7:11), and did not leave it again until the first month of his 601st year (Gen. 8:13), which means that by now, Noah has spent over 10 months in the ark. God promised to save Noah, but God never promised Noah that he would once again walk on dry land. If ever there was a time to lose hope, to assume that the world had come to an end – this was it.
Noah does not lose hope. Rather, Noah waits one more week, and then he sends out the dove once again. This time, she returns with an olive branch in her mouth, proof that the waters have subsided enough to find a tree; proof that Noah and all that is with him will once again emerge on dry land, that the world has not ended after all.
While we may not be living through a devastating flood as Noah did, it can still be all too easy to lose hope. Climate change, political turmoil and the challenges that each of us faces in our own lives can make it feel as if the world as we know it might be ending.
Perhaps it is no coincidence that we read this parashah in the late fall, when the days are getting shorter and the darkness seems to be overtaking the light. Perhaps our Torah reading cycle is a reminder to be like Noah: to create windows of hope through which light can shine even in the darkest of hours; to plan for the future; and perhaps most importantly, to continue to send out doves, to be persistent and unceasing in our search for signs of hope, never losing faith that there will always be a way to move forward.
RACHEL ZERIN is a rabbi at Temple Emanu-El in Providence.