Former Shaliach in Chicago
Currently a structural engineer
“Remove my soul from confinement”
According to the Midrash, throughout his sojourn in the Ark, Noach beseeches Hashem, “Remove my soul from confinement.” Nevertheless, Hashem denies Noach’s request and insists that he remain in the Ark for twelve long months.
But we have to wonder why Noach wants to leave? After all, as Noach obviously knows, there is not much of a world left outside the Ark.
Moreover, Noach’s “confinement and isolation” begins long before the mabul (the Flood) begins. His entire generation is irrevocably corrupted, and hence, HaKadosh Baruch Hu decides to destroy every living thing. Noach, however, is secluded from this environment.
As the first pasuk of this week’s parsha states:
“Noach was a righteous man, perfect in his generations.” (Breishit 6:9)
Undoubtedly, Noach is aware of the gap between himself and his contemporaries and therefore lives an isolated life.
Living in an Ark
Yet, we must note that – in stark contrast to Avraham – Noach does not pray on his generation’s behalf. In other words, to a certain extent, his isolation is also self-inflicted. Clearly, Noach is not immersed in the life around him. Effectively, he is encased within an “emotional” Ark – even before he is physically enclosed within wooden walls and surrounded by infinite amounts of water.
In light of the above, we can understand why Hashem specifically employs an Ark to rescue Noach and his family.
However, as noted above, once he is safely ensconced in the physical Ark, Noach yearns to leave. Why? What causes him to change his approach to the outside world?
Rashi (Breishit 6:14) asks:
“Many [methods of] relief and rescue are available to [HaKadosh Baruch Hu]; why, then, did He bother [Noach] with this construction?”
We have already observed that Hashem selects a means of salvation which reflects Noach’s antediluvian way of life.
But why is Noach forced to cool his heels inside the Ark – even after the mabul has ended? Why does HaKadosh Baruch Hu compel Noach to remain inside for twelve months?
As Noach comes to realize, serving as the generation’s sole “righteous man” comes at a price. A callous indifference to the fate of one’s peers and an unwillingness to influence them condemns one to isolation.
Thus, when this seclusion is taken to the extreme – i.e. the physical Ark – Noach undergoes a change. He suddenly feels a need to connect with his surroundings and hence pleads, “Remove my soul from confinement.”
In the merit of tzedakah
According to the Midrash Shem Tov (Tehilim), Avraham asks Malkitzedek – who, according to our tradition, is Noach’s son Shem – why he and his family merited exiting the Ark. In response, Malkitzedek explains that their merit was a result of the tzedakah(charity) they had done for the animals in the Ark. In other words, Noach and his family are not permitted to leave the Ark until they prove that they had learned to care for the animals onboard.
Avraham subsequently concludes that he should do the same thing, albeit for humans rather than for animals. Hence, as thepasuk states:
“And he planted an eishel in Be’er Sheva.” (Breishit 21:33)
Rashi famously teaches that according to one opinion, “eishel” refers to an inn for lodging. In this way, Avraham does chessed(acts of loving-kindness) for all the passersby.
A lesson learned
We have seen that Noach is spared his generation’s tragic fate because of his isolation. Yet, that very same sense of detachment also means that he is unable to exit the Ark. He realizes that no one else will be saved by the Ark, but yet he does nothing to change his contemporaries’ destiny. Therefore, his salvation involves complete seclusion and confinement. Although he and his family have not been killed, they do not deserve to roam the earth. Instead, Noach can continue his way of life locked up in a big box.
However, Noach learns his lesson during his long stay in the Ark and is now ready to return to the world. He finally comprehends that being righteousalso involves reaching out to others, and later, Avraham Avinu develops this foundation of chessed.
May we be privileged to maintain our inherent righteousness while serving as a beacon to those around us.
The above article was based on a Shabbat drashah delivered by my Rosh Yeshivah, Rav Eliyahu Blumenzweig.