Aseih lekha teivat atzei gofar…
“Make yourself an ark of gopher wood…”
Most biblical commentators ignore the ark, itself. They are concerned with heavy ethical dilemmas, the destructive nature of the Elohist God, how righteous one might be in a corrupt society; or somewhat more absurdly, the concern of how one family could feed all those beasts and subvert the natural order; and the most pious are concerned with issues of kashrut and purity!
Our Torah account of the ark cites God’s technical instructions to Noah (Genesis 6:14-16).
Make yourself an ark of gopher wood; make it an ark with compartments, and cover it inside and out with pitch.
This is how you shall make it: the length of the ark shall be three hundred cubits, its width fifty cubits, and its height thirty cubits.
Make an opening for daylight in the ark, and terminate it within a cubit of the top. Put the entrance to the ark in its side; make it with bottom, second, and third decks.
There are a few other physical details, but I am interested in the symbolism of the Ark.
The Ark in and of itself is nothing but a vessel or a tool. In the Mesopotamian parallel Flood Story, the vessel is a sailing boat. The Ark known to the Torah tradition understood by Abravanel, was as a triangular box. The theology of his age saw the Ark as a symbol of God’s complete and absolute Providence. “The use of [the word] tevah, is intended to emphasise that the fate of the occupants is to be determined solely by the will of God and not to be attributed to the skill of humanity (Sarna, The JPS Torah Commentary, p. 52).”
According to this approach, we need not concern ourselves with anything but relying on the Eternal One to provide.
Yet in a Liberal Jewish theology, humanity is no mere pawn. When we are thrown together in a box, is the goal one of survival? No words of Noah are reported whilst in the ark. Was he too busy surviving and helping others survive; Was he numbed and exhausted into silence; Or were his words lost in the animalistic cacophany of sound, a symphony or a din? Of course, we would use these words. We are Jews. We know about survival, about having to survive, not knowing how, just the fact that some have and others have not.
That might be a fact of moments in history, catastrophic but not representative of the entirety of Jewish history, believe or philosophy. Perhaps understanding the fragility of life, of our mortality, we are a People that places the importance of life above everything. The Ark may begin as a vessel that allows for survival; but in holding its load, is transformed into a life-sustainer.
The ark becomes a vessel, a platform of potentiality, an opportunity to imbue life with meaning and purpose, hope and joy.
Emmanuel Levinas (C. 20, France) – qu. Avivah Gottleib Zornberg, The Beginning of Desire, p. 61
“Nourishment as a means of invigoration, is the transmutation of the other into the same, which is the essence of enjoyment: an energy that is other, recognised as other…becomes, in enjoyment, my own energy, my strength, me. All enjoyment is in this sense alimentation [nourishment]…The bare fact of life is never bare. Life is not the naked will to be. Life’s relation with the very conditions of its life becomes the nourishment and content of that life. Life is love of life, a relation with contents that are not my being but more dear to me than my being: thinking, eating, sleeping, reading, working, warming oneself in the sun. Distinct from my substance but constituting it, these contents make up the worth of my life…Happiness is made up not of an absence of needs…but of the satisfaction of all needs.”
The ark is a vessel that carries one on a journey from one place to another. One boards not knowing exactly why but aiming towards a destination that promises tranquillity and joy, hope and fulfilment.
As so many have communicated, NPLS has been such a vessel, yet the journey is not complete. The vibrant colours of Autumn – Fall for our North American congregants – act like the stimulation of our senses at Havdalah. We hope they will buoy us through lockdowns and who knows what to come. They are part of the nourishment we feel in a congregation of NPLS. We are a symbol of continuity through sustenance and joy of life. We are a symbol of hope and assurance, a place of belonging, sharing of personal stories and experiences, that with a balanced dose of boldness and care, provides the worth of our lives, happiness, and the satisfaction of our needs.
Perhaps we have become the Ark Synagogue.