A Taste of Torah: Weekly Commentary from the JTS Community
November 5, 2005 3 Heshvan 5766
Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz, Senior Rabbinic Fellow
Parashat No·ah comes at an especially appropriate time for South Floridians. No·ah's extensive preparations before the flood eerily remind us of the hurried acts just prior to Hurricane Wilma: putting the hurricane shutters in place, scrambling to purchase plywood in an effort to board up one's home, and enclosing all of one's precious possessions in a safe space. All of this is reminiscent of the flood of which Genesis speaks. And though I am certain that the devastation wrought by Wilma pales in comparison to the biblical flood, I can only imagine that the psychological impact on the human survivors is similar. Still, what intrigues me most about the parashah this year (living in Boca Raton, which at the present moment resembles war-ravaged Beirut) is the Torah's extensive attention to the blueprints in the construction of the ark. In particular, it is the ambiguity of one word, tzohar (meaning "roof" or "window") that truly speaks volumes to me in the aftermath of Wilma.
At the opening of the parashah, No·ah is given a detailed building plan for the ark. Part of these instructions state, "make a tzohar and terminate it within a cubit of the top" (Genesis 6:16). Nahum Sarna describes tzohar as a unique word and explains that the ambiguity arises from the continuation of the verse, "terminate it within a cubit of the top." Does the latter part of the verse suggest that a space of one cubit should be between the window and the top of the ark or perhaps that the roof should extend one cubit beyond the side of the ark (Nahum Sarna, JPS Torah Commentary, Genesis, 52)? Commentators are unsure. The ambiguity of the text, however, gives rise to two alternate and critical readings. First, if we are to understand tzohar as "roof," I believe God is accentuating the importance of refuge. The roof is that which closes; it is that which protects and separates one wholly from the potential destruction from the skies above. God is, above all, concerned with the protection of life in the ark — and so every precaution is taken in construction. Alternatively, if we are to understand tzohar as "window," then I believe God's primary concern for No·ah and his family is about openness and connection. While it is understandable and logical that No·ah would desire to construct a hermetically sealed enclosure for his family and all of the life contained therein, the danger that God warns against is precisely such isolation. The ark must have a window so No·ah can see both the destruction and the eventual healing of the world. Without a window, we are incapable of being truly human and acting in the divine image.
More than the construction of roofs, it is the building of windows here in South Florida that has been overwhelming. I feel compelled to personally acknowledge "the windows of light" that demonstrated to me and my family the potential for community and hesed (loving kindness). One very dear student of mine sent a crew of workers to board up our home before the hurricane. It is thanks to this very special angel that our family was safe throughout this powerful storm. A special neighbor showed his kindness to us by helping clear a massive tree that fell inches from our home. People in our community came to the immediate aid of a family that was particularly hard hit by the storm — as the owner of the home was seriously injured by broken glass, these neighbors boarded up a whole side of the house that was destroyed by Wilma. And one of my students in Jacksonville graciously opened up her home to our family, granting us a much-needed Shabbat respite from the chaos of South Florida. It is such hesed that reaffirms one's faith in the world and allows one to persevere after the devastation of the flood. May we all learn from these models of humanity and devote our lives not only to the construction of roofs but also the building of "windows of light."
Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz