“And God spoke to Noah saying, ‘Leave the ark.'” (Gen. 8:15-16)

After the generation of the flood failed to repent, God wiped them out. “And all that remained was Noah in the ark,” says the Midrash Tanhuma. The midrash continues, “Noah said to himself, I entered at God’s will, when God said to me, ‘Come, you and all your household, into the ark.’ And so now I will only leave with God’s permission.” (Tanhuma Noach 8)

There is something striking in this moment. The land is dry. Noah knows all will be okay. And yet, God still has to instruct him to leave. Why?

The midrash goes on to compare this moment of exiting the ark with a verse in Psalms: “Bring my soul out of prison ,that I may praise thy name” (Ps. 142:7). Noah was sagur, shut inside the ark, as we know from the earlier verse, vayisgor adonai ba’ado, “And God shut him in” (Gen. 7:16). Here the midrash reminds us that, as much as the ark saved Noah and his family, it was at the same time a prison. It was full of bad memories (memories which, interestingly enough, we don’t preserve in the written text of the Torah). The midrash relates that for twelve months inside the ark, Noah and his sons did not sleep, since they were constantly feeding the animals. They did not have sexual relations with their wives. They did not have a normal life. This was as far from normal as could be. They were prisoners.

So we can imagine that Noah was in shock when it finally ended. He couldn’t move. And so God had to tell him it was time to go.

The psychological interpretation is hard to miss. The ark can be the shell we crawl into to escape the tribulations of the world, real or metaphorical. Leaving that cocoon is not an easy task, even after the tempest has subsided.

But there is another dimension to this reading. The word teivah, which means ark, also means letter in post-Biblical Hebrew. That is, Noah not only entered the ark, he also entered into a letter. The entire world was balled up into a single letter. The world was silent. All God’s speech acts, which had created the world, were withdrawn. The world of language, like the physical world, was desolate. All that remained was the building block of a word.

And at this moment, Noah needed God’s help to learn to speak again, to be a person again. The world needed God to speak again, and Noah needed to hear God’s voice once more. “Leave the boat, all of you—you and your wife, and your sons and their wives. Release all the animals—the birds, the livestock, and the small animals that scurry along the ground—and be fruitful and multiply throughout the earth” (Gen. 8:16-17). These are God’s first words after the destruction, and they recapitulate God’s words at the moment of creation: “Then God blessed them and said, ‘Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth and govern it. Reign over the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, and all the animals that scurry along the ground'” (Gen. 1:28). God recreates the world, and God renews language and speech. From one tiny letter, one single teivah, the world is reborn.

This too is an overwhelming moment, the moment of re-encountering speech after such a long silence. But it is also a moment we encounter every day. Language is a structure that provides security for many of us. We use words that are familiar. We stick to concepts we know. To leave those words and ideas for new ones requires bravery. Noah, standing at the threshold of the ark, likewise stands at the threshold of language, at the doorway of the world. The ark, the letter, which has been his home, has also been his prison.

Shabbat shalom.

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