By Reb David
We know the story of Noah, the ark, the animals, the 40 days of rain, the flood, the raven, the dove, the rainbow. Many civilizations share similar myths and narratives about floodwaters washing away prehistory. In this week of Parshat Noach, it’s tempting to let the plot of the flood sweep us up in its current and theological questions. But fittingly for this seaside community, instead let’s look at the ark itself:
עֲשֵׂה לְךָ תֵּבַת עֲצֵי-גֹפֶר קִנִּים תַּעֲשֶׂה אֶת-הַתֵּבָה וְכָפַרְתָּ אֹתָהּ מִבַּיִת וּמִחוּץ בַּכֹּפֶר
Make an ark of gopher wood, [and] make rooms in the ark; and cover it inside and out with pitch (Gen. 6:14).
The ark’s outside was covered in pitch. In Hebrew, “cover” and “pitch” share a root (כפר) with kippur — as in Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Ostensibly irredeemable primordial humanity was covered in water, and the ark that lifted Noah out of pre-history was covered in pitch to keep that water out. Evolving past narratives of divine destruction as penalty or purification, today we look to Yom Kippur and spiritual practice to cover, purify and redeem “sin.” Thus, we can understand the ark’s outside to symbolize covering, protection and redemption. As for the ark’s inside:
צֹהַר תַּעֲשֶׂה לַתֵּבָה וְאֶל-אַמָּה תְּכַלֶּנָּה מִלְמַעְלָה וּפֶתַח הַתֵּבָה בְּצִדָּהּ תָּשִׂים תַּחְתִּיִּם שְׁנִיִּם וּשְׁלִשִׁים תַּעֲשֶׂהָ
Make a light to the ark, and to a cubit finish it upward, and set a door of the ark in its side, and make it with lower, second and third stories (Gen. 6:16).
Though covered in pitch to keep out waters above and below, not even Noah’s ark was hermetically sealed. Despite even a killing flood, the ark needed an upward facing skylight so that light – symbolizing inflow, life, divinity, spirituality, whatever the metaphor – could penetrate the darkness.
As for Noah, so for us. Sometimes we do need protection, but we mustn’t protect ourselves so much that we keep out the light – even at risk of getting soaked. Not even Noah needed to hermetically seal himself: the skylight reminds that there can be no second chance, no true redemption, and no life worth living if we cover ourselves too tightly or protect ourselves too carefully.
Noah’s lesson: even when rain falls hardest, keep a skylight open.