Saturday, October 06, 2007

Parshat Noach

When G-d commanded Noach to build the ark, He specified the dimensions of the ark precisely. It is clear from the size of the ark that there is no way that all the animals and their food could have fitted into it under normal circumstances. Either it was a TARDIS (which is much bigger on the inside than on the outside), or else G-d miraculously enabled all the people and animals to fit inside a space that would not otherwise have been large enough for them. There are two principles which explain why G-d would put Noach to the trouble of building an ark if it would take a miracle to save him and the animals anyway. Firstly a person may rely on miracles, but must do whatever they are able, and only then can they ask G-d for help. Secondly, G-d always tries to minimise obvious miracles to allow for free choice. In addition, in the case of Noach, G-d wanted him to spend 120 years building the ark so that the people of the generation would realise that the flood was imminent, and have the opportunity to repent. This explains why G-d did not save Noach and the animals in a simpler way. The question remains however, that if the ark is only a decoy, to hide the miracle, why does the Torah bother to tell us the dimensions. What difference would it make whether it was 300 cubits long, or only 299?
There is clearly some deeper significance to the dimensions of the ark. Rabbi Yonasan Eibschitz quotes the Arizal who states that these specifications correspond to the Tetragammaton name of G-d (Yud, Heh - Vav, Heh). Rabbi Eibschitz explains that the width of the ark is 50 cubits, which is ten (yud) times five (heh). The height is 30 cubits which is six (vav) times five (heh). This four letter name of G-d refers to His attribute of mercy, so it is fitting that the ark, which was built to ensure the continuation of the human race should be based on this name.
The only other place where the Torah gives us such specific building plans is in the building of the Mishkan, (tabernacle), where each item is described in detail. It would appear therefore that there is some connection between the Mishkan and Noach’s ark. There are many similarities between the ark and the Mishkan. Both were three tiered - the ark had an upper deck for humans, the second for the animals, and the lower deck for the refuse. The tabernacle also had three different levels of sanctity, the Holy of Holies, containing the ark* of the covenant with the stone tablets, the Holy section with the menorah, table and golden altar, and the outer courtyard which had the earthen altar.
The plans for the Mishkan were given to Moshe on Yom Kippur, after his final forty days on Mount Sinai. The forty days obviously corresponds to the forty days and nights that the rain fell at the beginning of the flood. Just as Noach’s ark was bigger on the inside than on the outside, so too the Mishkan, the dimensions of the Holy of Holies were not big enough to contain the ark which was within it. Similarly, no matter how many people came to the Temple there was always room for them, and though they were packed in standing on Yom Kippur, when it came time to bow down everyone had enough space to prostrate themselves on the ground. Finally, Noach spent 120 years constructing the ark, which was the age of Moshe, who was ultimately responsible for the construction of the Mishkan, at the time of his death.
However, conceptually the ark and the Mishkan appear to be opposites. The ark saved those who were within from destruction outside, whereas the Mishkan destroyed those who entered, but sustained the entire outside world. Noach and his family were saved by remaining in the ark, so that Noach’s ark was the point of interaction with G-d, but that the Divine Presence was not discernible outside the ark. In contrast, the Mishkan was the point of interaction with G-d, but through the Mishkan G-d’s Presence was felt throughout the world. The most intense point of interaction was the Holy of Holies, where nobody was permitted to enter, with the exception of the High Priest on one day of the year.
The first High Priest in the Mishkan was Aharon, who is associated with the kabbalistic concept of Chen. Translated as ‘grace’ this is a difficult concept to explain, but is typified by the Mishna which describes Aharon as one who ‘loves peace and pursues peace, loves people and brings them closer to Torah’ (Pirkei Avot 1: 8). Aharon was constantly reaching out to others, and actively pursuing peace. Thus he was the most appropriate person to dwell within the confines of the Mishkan, which was ultimately the place of G-d’s Presence reaching out to the world.
Noach is also associated with Chen, as the last verse in last week’s Torah reading states “And Noach found Chen in G-d’s eyes”. However Noach is the opposite of reaching out to others, his main fault was that he did not pray for the other people of his generation. Therefore his name is the letters of the word Chen inverted. So too his ark was closed off from the rest of the world, and no one else could enjoy the interaction with the Divine.

*The Hebrew word for Noach’s ark is teva but the word for the ark of the covenant is aron, so we cannot cite this as another similarity.

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