We are, like Noah, surrounded by a flood, a flood of violence, death and destruction. And we are in danger of falling into this storm, being sucked under, emotionally flooded, overwhelmed by despair and dread and powerlessness.
How do we navigate this situation and stay afloat in the flood? How do we respond in a way that empowers and strengthens us and in some way pushes the world in the right direction, even the tiniest bit?
A Vehicle of Kindness
I think the story of Noah and the flood offers a response: we build an ark to preserve the light amidst the darkness, to preserve the love amidst the hate.
The world was and is being destroyed by human violence and acts of hatred. What is the antidote? God tells Noah to build an ark and to invite in representatives of all animal species. Now what happens inside this ark during the whole time of the flood? Noah and his family take care of the animals. They ride out the storm of violence in a vehicle of kindness.
The gemara elaborates on what this animal care looked like, with Shem, Noah’s son, telling the story: “It was very hard for us in the ark,” says Shem. “Where there was a creature that typically feeds during the day, we fed it during the day. Where there was a creature that typically feeds at night, we fed it at night” (Sanhedrin 108b). Their entire occupation during the flood, day and night, was care-taking. They didn’t ride out the flood in worry and despair. They rode it out with love and care.
Shem further tells the story of how his father did not know what to feed the chameleon until one day, while Noah was peeling a pomegranate, a worm fell from the pomegranate and the chameleon ate it. And so, says Shem, from then on, his father would knead bran with water and wait for worms to appear and then feed that mixture to the chameleon. We might have expected that, with a storm raging outside, Noah would say to the animals: “Ok, one meal time for all of you and you all eat the same thing! It’s a crisis now.” But no. He was attuned to the needs of each animal, with day and nighttime feedings and an alert, patient attention to those whose needs were unclear, like the chameleon. Such gentle kindness in a sea of violence.
Kindness Begins Inside
Kindness begins at home, in our own tevah, our own ark. The word tevah is very close in letters to the word bayit, house or home. We start at home, and our first home is inside us, our very own selves. How attuned have you been to your own needs lately? Or does it feel impossible to claim them and tend to them amidst the storm? Shem further tells a story about the phoenix, how the phoenix would lie, hiding in the side of the ark, until Noah asked him – don’t you need to eat? And the phoenix responded – I saw you were busy and I didn’t want to trouble you. Perhaps we have such a phoenix inside us, a self denying part that hides in the rafters, not wanting to make trouble when there is so much going on. How have we been abandoning ourselves and the parts of us that need attention and care?
To turn towards these parts of us with attunement and kindness is not a selfish act, but a heroic one, an act of activism. The preciousness of individual life is precisely what is under attack right now, and so with each moment that we turn towards any living thing – human, animal or plant – with care and attention, including ourselves, we honor the divine life force and strengthen its sacredness in the world. We can attune, internally and externally, like Noah did with the chameleon, inquiring gently – what exactly is needed here right now. What is this fear, this dread, this despair in me, and what does it need, how can I tend to it? Amidst the violence, in response to the violence, we quietly sprinkle the world with this tender presence, creating a mirco-climate of love.
As we let this energy grow and expand inside us, we come into awareness of how much capacity we have for love and care and nourishment, how good that feels, how healing, how redemptive. This love in us is boundless and boundaryless. There were so many different animals in the ark and Noah cared for them all, no distinctions. Our capacity for love is similarly expansive. This is the love that can counter strife and conflict; this is the love that can heal the world. This is our power, and it is a mighty one.
A Vessel of Light
As we let this love fill us, we become beacons of light shining in the dark. God tells Noah to include in the ark a tzohar, which the gemara understands as a precious jewel to be set in the ark so that it shined katzharayim, as brightly “as the afternoon sun” (Sandhedrin 108b). The ark was to be aglow with light. Maybe you can imagine yourself this way, as a vessel of light, like the ark, a shining lantern, floating along on a wild dark sea. The raging waters threaten to overwhelm you, but you hold on to the light of love inside you with all your might, unwavering in your commitment. In the face of darkness, you are light. In the face of hatred, you are love, fierce unshakable love.
Amidst the concreteness of the images of violence and destruction that we see, this love may seem like a mirage. That’s ok. It does have an ephemeral quality to it, like the otherworldly light that shined through the prism of the precious gem. This light is a dream, a hope, an imagining. It comes to us from another plane and speaks another language. It is not of the storm, but is the boat that floats through the storm. If we lose ourselves in the storm, there is only storm. So now, especially in this moment, even if we are also by necessity in some way involved in the storm, we can still always hold fast to the light of love and kindness and hope, still cultivate it, treasure it, preserve it like a precious stone inside us. It may be otherworldly and ephemeral, but it is our essence. This is God in us.
Holding Onto Peace
One of the aspects of this light that we hold onto is the hope for ultimate peace in this world. The tevah was a place of radical inclusiveness, male and female, pure and impure, every animal represented, a place where normally warring animals somehow lived in peace and did not kill each other. It was a vision of a possible future where the lion will lie down with the lamb and warring nations will learn to co-exist. This vision feels impossible at this moment of storm, as surely it did in Noah’s time, but we nonetheless hold it like a precious gem in our sheltered tevah, hold it fast through the storm, and do not let it drop or get washed away with the violent current. Maybe you can feel inside you the yearning for such a world – allow yourself to imagine it and envision it – even if it feels impossible right now, let yourself yearn and hope, place it in this tevah for safe keeping, hold it fast, treasure it like a precious gem of light.
Looking Out From This Place
Rashi offers two interpretations for what this tzohar is that Noah was to include in the ark. One is this precious stone. The other interpretation is that the tzohar is a halon, a window (Rashi on Genesis 6:16). We stand at the window and look out at the storm. We don’t hole up in our boat of peace and act as if there is no other reality, no violence, no destruction raging outside. We do look outward, we take in what is happening, we mourn and grieve, but from this place of care and kindness, from this ark of hope and faith, our feet squarely planted in the ground of love. We do not let ourselves fall into the storm, get flooded by despair and powerlessness. We look out and hold what we can from a place of steadfast hope for a future of peace, despite it all.
We each have our own ark, but we are also building a communal ark, strengthening each other in building it. Noah tried to get others to collaborate in his boat-building project, but they mocked him. We are in a better place. We do build this boat together. We remind each other of its reality, of the love and care and kindness that still exist in the world, we attune to each other, each a Noah for each other’s chameleon, we hold the hope of a different future together, we shine our light out to help each other see in the dark, each one of us a precious gem.
Cross-posted on Torah and Inner Work.