by Susan Nitkin
“Adonai remembered Noach and all the beasts and all the animals that were with him in the ark, and Adonai caused a spirit to pass over the earth, and the waters subsided. The fountains of the deep and the windows of the heavens were closed, and the rain from heaven was restrained. The waters then receded from upon the earth, receding continuously, and the waters diminished at the end of a hundred and fifty days. And the ark came to rest in the seventh month, on the seventeenth day of the month, upon the mountains of Ararat. The waters were continuously diminishing until the tenth month. In the tenth month, on the first of the month, the tops of the mountains became visible. And it came to pass at the end of forty days, that Noach opened the window of the ark which he had made.” This image is exquisitely beautiful to me: a rudderless boat drifting about in a rising sea, then a wind, or a spirit, passing over the earth causing the waters to subside. And Noah opening the window, releasing the birds, and beginning to imagine the possibility of a life beyond… The story of Noah’s Ark is powerful and difficult for me to understand and find meaning from; terrible wickedness, Adonai saddened by how the world is turning out to be, destruction of almost everything, the undoing of Creation, and then at the end perhaps a regretful Adonai who makes a covenant with the people in the form of a rainbow. And one righteous person, Noah, and his family, the only human beings worthy of surviving the flood for the purpose of the continuation of the species. What was the nature of Noah’s goodness? It is said that he “was a righteous man, blameless in his age.” Does this mean that he was intrinsically righteous, or that he was righteous in comparison to the people around him, in his time? Uncertainties arise – did he plead with Adonai to spare the lives of the people and animals about to be doomed by the flood, and, if not, what do we make of that? Did he warn people of the terrifying things that he knew were about to occur; did he try to convince them to change their ways? I think we are being asked to look more closely at who he was, and for me, I think, part of an answer to these questions can be found in the story of the birds. As I was thinking about this Torah portion, I found myself drawn to the story of the birds. The part I remember from when I was young is when the dove returned to the ark with an olive leaf in its beak, signaling to Noah that the flood was over and the world would soon be renewed. But, as the story goes, the first bird that Noah sent was not the dove, it was a raven. Noah sent out the raven, the commentators say, to observe its movements and what it was eating – meat from floating carcasses? vegetation from land that was no longer covered with water? – in order to determine how much the waters were receding. The raven, it is said, “went to and fro until the waters had dried up from the earth.” So Noah sent out the dove. But the dove could not find a place to rest and it returned to him. He waited seven days and sent the dove again. The dove came back in the evening, after some time had passed, with an olive leaf in its beak! And Noah understood from this that the tops of the trees were visible which meant that the waters were subsiding. Finally, seven days later, he sent the dove one more time and this time it did not return, which meant that the waters had dried enough for the dove to be able to settle on land. In ancient times sailors used birds and observed their movements to determine their ships’ proximity to land. In the evening doves would return to the boats as they would return to their nest under normal circumstances. If a dove returned with clay on its feet, it meant there was land nearby. This speaks to me of the remarkable interdependence between people and animals…Noah providing shelter and food for the animal kingdom during the time of the flood, and watching the movements of two birds, first a raven and then a dove, to gather information that he, tethered to the earth by gravity, could not find out for himself. As it is said, “Noah opened the window of the ark that he had made and sent out the raven; it went to and fro until the waters had dried up from the earth.” “To and fro” might mean that it went back and forth from the ark. But when I read this passage I don’t see that. I see the raven not sent but released, with no intention of returning, circling in the sky, flying first one way, then the other, alone, for many days, until the flood is over. So if this is true, unlike the dove, the raven abandoned Noah. It flew far away and did not return to give him news of the floodwaters. It left, wanting to be free. First I react with disdain. But then slowly my perception of this raven shifts. I become aware of its awesome strength and resolve; I understand and accept its need for solitude and freedom; I admire its beauty. The dove was different. It came back. In my mind’s eye I imagine an old mariner (Noah was 600 years old at this time in the story!) leaning from the window of the ark in anticipation of the return of the dove, a dove that did return even though the treetops were visible and it probably could have found a resting place for its feet. I think about Noah gently making a place for this dove in his huge hand. I see the dove carrying an olive leaf in its beak, as if to tell Noah something very important. And I perceive Noah understanding the profound message the dove was trying to convey without words; that there was hope, the floodwaters were receding; it would take time still, but there was going to be a new beginning. What do we learn from Noah? Reflecting on my quick judgment about the raven and how that judgment shifted over time to understanding and admiration; and visualizing Noah taking his time with the small dove so he could comprehend its message, I think this part of the story teaches something about how we can open our hearts. The dove could not communicate with words. Noah had to listen, not only carefully, but also differently, so he could understand what the bird wanted to tell him. So we are urged to listen to those among us who cannot speak, or can speak only a little, or who can speak but communicate and move their bodies in ways that are different from what we are used to or are expecting. We are urged to listen to each one among us who at one time or another needs to be listened to carefully and in our own voice. We are urged to listen with an open heart to those whose life stories are so very different from our own that it sometimes seems impossible to contemplate. What is the best way to do this? I think the answers are different for each person, but I believe it requires openness to new experience. It means knowing that where sometimes we see, from our vantage point, only pain and limitations, there also lives hope and expectation, rich inner experience, happiness and deep connection to other people, and transcendence, in small ways and sometimes very big ways, every day. Listening with an open heart means being willing to take the risk that we will make mistakes and that our overtures to people might not be received the way we wish them to be as we learn to connect with people who struggle and whose voices, far too often, are not heard. Thank you, each and every one of you, family, friends, teachers, for your special role in our lives, for listening, and for being here to mark this occasion. And thank you Rabbi Toba for supporting us and for allowing this day to unfold in a way that is especially meaningful for our family. Shabbat Shalom.