Parashat No•ah

Genesis 6:9–11:32
October 20, 2012 / 4 Heshvan 5773

This week's commentary was written by Rabbi Abigail Treu, Rabbinic Fellow and Director of Donor Relations, JTS.

The Windows
by Constantine P. Cavafy, Greek poet, 1863–1933

In these darkened rooms, where
I spend oppressive days,
I pace to and fro to find the windows.
When a window opens, it will be a consolation.
But the windows cannot be found, or I cannot find them.
And maybe it is best that I do not find them. Maybe the light will be a new tyranny.
Who knows what new things it will reveal?


Hovering at the edge of the question of what life on the ark was like for Noah is the problem of the window.

But before we get to that: let's agree that the story of Noah and the ark is a parable, rife with symbolism of our own negotiation of transitions and traumas of all kinds. Let's agree that, like Noah, we struggle to understand that the world we once knew is not the world that endures for our entire lifespan. Let's agree that fear of change is the greatest human dread. And let's agree, too, that at some point in our own survival stories, we find a way to cope and begin again—just as Noah, in the end, sets foot on dry land and plants a vineyard there too.

And now, back to the window.

The ark's window bothered the Rabbis. It is a technical problem: in Genesis 8:6, Noah "opened the window (chalon) of the ark that he had made," but in the very thorough account of the construction of the ark earlier in the parashah, no window was ever made. "What window?" the Rabbis wonder. Rashi glosses that the window is the tzohar of 6:16, which is indisputable because no one knows what a tzohar is and the word does not appear again in all of Tanakh. It is translated by the Jewish Publication Society as "daylight," based on the tradition begun in Targum Onkelos, and picked up by the Rabbis, that it was something that illuminated the ark, perhaps a daylight, perhaps a precious glowing gem. The Vulgate—the Latin translation of the Bible, done in the fourth-century AD—translates it as fenestra, meaning "window," and the medieval Rabbis take that up as exemplified by Rashi's gloss: "The window of the ark that he had made: this is the tzohar, and not the opening of the ark made for entering and exiting." But on the peshat, the literal level, a chalon is not necessarily a tzohar (whatever that is), and if it were, wouldn't we find the same word in both places?

JTS rabbinical student Shuli Passow has provocatively suggested that the window is not the tzohar because the window was something entirely of Noah's own invention. I find myself thinking of it this way: Noah was going stir-crazy, shut in the ark for days on end, trapped with a small group of people and lots of animals needing his care, and watching the world around him disappear. I like to imagine that one day he decided he needed a place to sit and look outside and daydream about a different kind of a life; about what might come next, after the ark. And so he built a window. This, I posit, is why the window isn't mentioned in the construction scheme: because Noah didn't build it then. Noah built it during the flood. Maybe before the waters were up too high on the sides of the ark, or maybe right there in the thick of things, while the rains were pouring down. Maybe he got soaking wet in the process and even let some of the rain water into the ark—life is messy like that sometimes. Especially in the middle of a crisis in which the survival of one's self and family (and perhaps all of life as we know it) is at stake.

Once built, it is from the window that Noah begins to tentatively dream about—and ultimately prepare for—his new life. He stands by that window and gathers the courage to open it, to imagine a different life than the one he is living. Bravely, he tries sending different things out, tentatively testing. The raven, the dove, his hand—all three with the verb sh"l"ch (send)—`then each is brought back into the ark, as he slowly readies himself for whatever comes next.

The raven. The language is so vague, we don't even know if it came back to the ark or not: if it came and went a dozen times or just once or for how long it was gone. One has the impression that a lot of time passed, a lot of time in which Noah waited by the window. Patiently? Impatiently? With hope? With dread? Cassuto suggests that Noah learned nothing from the raven (ad locum); I think quite the opposite: that sending something out through that window was the most courageous and important first step, for it opened up the possibility that a different reality lay on the other side. And how hard it must have been to wait, to sit still to see what might happen.

Then, the dove. By now, Noah has gotten used to the idea that things come and go in and out of his dream window. This time he has a goal in mind; he sends the dove "to see whether the waters had decreased." This is new: Noah is beginning to make plans, to turn his dreams of a new life—ever so tentatively—into reality. 

Finally, Noah stretches (sh"l"ch) his own hand out too, catching the dove on its way home to him. The move betrays Noah's ambivalence: he is eager for the dove to tell him it is time to build a new life, but he is not quite ready yet. He is anxious to leave and nervous, ready only to stretch one hand out. The flood has been difficult enough; transitioning again from what has become the "new normal" to another new reality is a slow process. Noah is testing, waiting until the time is right, and readying himself because the world has changed.

Finally, two rounds of the verb "to wait" later—one in an unusual grammatical form (the niph'al, 8:12) that invites the commentators to wonder if Noah was full of disappointment or anticipation or what at this point—he sends the dove out again, and is rewarded with the olive branch. It is only with the passage of much time, it is only by waiting that Noah is ready for it. The olive branch, the concrete symbol that life on the other side of the window is possible and is indeed in progress, that the dove no longer needs the window or the ark, and neither does Noah. Both are ready for that new life for which Noah has slowly been readying himself.

The olive leaf is bitter, notes the midrash. Does that mean life is bitter on the other side? Or just that new beginnings are difficult? Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch suggests something more optimistic: "Our sages take this bitter olive leaf in the mouth of the dove to preach the great fact: Bitter, unusual, normally intolerable food, eaten in freedom and independence, is sweeter than the sweetest in a dependent condition. So for us the olive leaf is not a symbol of peace but of the value of independence and freedom and of content and moderation [ad locum]." The olive leaf, brought in through the window of Noah's initiative, is the beginning of his new reality, the tangible result of his having been brave enough to build a window in the ark, to dream about a different life, and to find a way to live it.

We each sail on the seas of unknown waters, wondering what new things might be revealed if we dare to open a window and dream-see what is on the other side. From Noah we learn that courage is part of being a tzadik, a righteous person; the daring to dream and build windows, to open them and slowly send ideas through them, is what brings us from one stage of our lives to the next.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld.