The hand trembles and the pen falters when writing about Parashat Noach. We all know the essential story. I don't mean to sound cavalier or nonchalant, but Katrina, Rita and Wilma place this portion into a different context. At least, it should give us pause. But there is something in our teachings that should give us a modicum of perspective and hope.
As Noah and his family went into the teiva, the ark, let us go in as well – but in an ark of a different kind. Did not Professor Abraham Joshua Heschel remind us that teiva also means in Hebrew "word." And for a Jew, that means engaging and entering the words of our sacred tradition. But first, a story.
You will recall that January 1973 marked the historic moment when Israeli prime minister Golda Meir was invited to the Vatican to talk to Pope Paul VI. Golda writes very movingly about this in her autobiography, My Life.
As the representative of a people restored to their ancestral home after 2,000 years of persecution and exile, Golda Meir, the "fierce lioness," as she was so often called, vowed to be courteous but also resolved to meet the pope with stubborn dignity. There would be no obsequious gestures. Yet, as she was standing in the vestibule awaiting the papal audience, the emotion and sheer gravitas of this historical moment grabbed hold of her.
She apparently said to a member of her entourage, "Who would have thought that me, Golda Mabovich, daughter of a Russian carpenter would be here visiting with the pope of the Catholics?" After these words, a member of her retinue tapped her on the shoulder and said, "Golda, don't worry – around here, carpentry is a very respected profession."
Last week, the world and all therein was created. Man is not just created but commanded. After a mere hour of being in command, according to our rabbinic midrash, man sins. There are 10 generations from the birth of Adam until the birth of Noah. "These are the generations of Noach, Noach was in his generations a man righteous and whole-hearted; Noach walked with God."
But the rest of his generation didn't – and you know the rest of the story. In the month of Iyar (this current month!), the torrential deluge begins and lasts, according to our sages' reckoning, for an entire solar year – 365 days.
What is interesting and instructive is to learn of Noah's first activity when he disembarks from his teiva. The world as he knew it is totally decimated, obliterated and washed away. Let's continue our journey "into" the teiva (the word). "Vayeitzu min hateiva" – "they leave the ship" and "Vayeeven Noach" – "Noah builds."
Rather than succumb to lethargy or despair, Noah builds. He is, as it were, the first carpenter of the new world. Listen to what the Torah is profoundly teaching this week – this week of the flood. Noah might have had his world washed away, but he was not about to be washed up. "Noah builds."
But he doesn't build a Levittown community. He builds an altar. The esteemed 19th century chief rabbi of Frankfurt, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, comments: "We had to build our altars with our own hands. It was not to rest on a base or on pillars – it had to be connected to the ground. Noach consecrated the earth as the place upon which man must build, rock upon rock, as it were, consecrated to God."
Our journey will be fraught with peaks and valleys, we will know of construction and destruction, of victory and defeat, of success and failure. But just as God did not despair of His activity and His world, we, too, are to be stubbornly committed to our activity and our world.
Rabbi David Gutterman is executive director of the Vaad: Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia.