To look or not to look

During the flood, God was enacting a punishment, a clear demonstration of the idea of Divine judgment.

Rabbi Dr. Darrell Ginsberg,

Rabbi Dr. D. Ginzberg
Rabbi Dr. D. Ginzberg

The story of Noah and the Flood begins with God’s decision to destroy mankind, save Noah and his family. The construction of the ark would ensure their safety through the coming tempest. And the instructions to build this ark were pretty straightforward (Bereishit 6:14-16):

“Make for yourself an ark of gopher wood; you shall make the ark with compartments, and you shall caulk it both inside and outside with pitch.  And this [is the size] you shall make it: three hundred cubits the length of the ark, fifty cubits its breadth, and thirty cubits its height. You shall make a skylight [tzohar] for the ark, and to a cubit you shall finish it to the top, and the entrance of the ark you shall place in its side; you shall make it with bottom [compartments], second story [compartments], and third story [compartments]”

The word “tzohar” presents a bit of a quandary. If indeed this was supposed to be a window, then the Torah could easily have been explicit about it. This leads to an interesting alternate possibility, as noted in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 108b):

“A window shalt thou make to the ark. R. Yochanan said: The Holy One, blessed be He, instructed Noah, ‘Set therein precious stones and jewels, so that they may give thee light, bright as the noon.’”

Rather than stick with a simpler reason, the instruction is changed to mean Noach needed to bring these stones and jewels with him onto the ark.  

The Midrash (Midrash Raba Bereishit 31:11) adds more to the explanation. Throughout the entire period of time on the ark, there was no need for the light of the sun or moon. Rather, Noah took a jewel with him onto the ark and suspended it inside. When light shone from it, he knew it was day. When light ceased shining from it, he knew it was night. 

Obviously, this adds an additional supernatural element to the entire story. Putting that aside, we should ask a simple question: why does it matter at all whether there was a window or a jewel providing light?

The Torah Temimah notes this issue and provides a path of elucidation. He references the story of Lot and his escape with his family from Sodom. During that episode, he is warned to not look behind, as it would be inappropriate to be saved while seeing the downfall of the evil citizens of Sodom.

Using this “precedent”, one can assume this would be a problem with Noah. There is a famous debate as to whether Noah was objectively a righteous individual, or was his righteousness relative to the people of his generation. Rabbi Yochanan emphasizes that the idea of his righteousness being relative is derogatory. Had Noah lived during the time of Avraham, he would not have been considered virtuous. We also see from a different Midrash that Noah lacked complete belief in God’s promise of the upcoming flood; he did not think God’s plan would come to fruition. As a result of this, it would not have been appropriate for Noah to witness the annihilation of the species. The Torah Temimah now ties the points together. Rabbi Yochanan was of the opinion that Noah’s righteousness was comparative. He was also of the opinion that Noah was commanded to bring with him the various jewels as the source of light. In other words, Noah should not have had a window put in the ark. He should not be able to see the carnage taking place outside the ark. 

The above certainly adds a layer of importance to whether there was a window or not in the ark. However, we should not be content to just accept this interpretation at face value. Why would it have been problematic for Noah to witness what was taking place? What flaw would be exposed if a window was present? We can also assume the opinion that there was a window would agree Noah was objectively a righteous person. If so, what benefit could there be for Noah seeing the destruction?

The idea of Noah not being truly righteous (obviously) points to some type of flaw in his makeup. We can work backwards from the concern of seeing others perish to ascertain what this defect might have been. One of the critical features that led to mankind’s demise was his outsized view of himself. From the outset, man’s unique place in this world was clear and definitive. He reigned supreme, justified by the singular feature of having a rational creative mind. Looking at the spectrum of creatures, it would only be natural for mankind to see itself as being a necessary component, or even the sole reason, for the existence of the world. The species of man could never be wiped out, as the world only existed due to his greatness. Yet here was God, as a result of the evil actions taking place, promising to destroy the species. Noah may have suffered, to some extent, from this same distorted outlook. The overvaluation of mankind casted serious doubts on God’s intentions.

According to Rabbi Yochanan, had Noah been able to witness the destruction of all other humans, there could have been a harmful deduction. Noah may have seen himself as the sole individual worthy of existence. Of course, Noah was the person chosen to “re-start” the species; thus, there was some truth to that sentiment. Noah, though, may have seen this as a testament to his prominence. He was the greatest of all mankind, qualitatively distinct from the entire species. This attitude would have been destructive, precluding him from being able to commence on the intended mission.

The future of mankind would be plagued with the same misleading perspective. The absence of any window, enclosed in the tomb of the ark, created an immediate sense of dependency on God. The frailty of existence was in plain sight to him. The reliance on the supernatural light demonstrated how he was destitute. Noah had to realize that, while he had numerous redeeming qualities, he was not somehow an intrinsically important creature. 
If Noah was objectively righteous, would there be a benefit to the window beyond its practical necessity? As mentioned above, the opinion that there was a window in the ark would be aligned with the idea that Noah was truly righteous. The window would mean Noah was able to witness the implementation of God’s plan. During the flood, God was enacting a punishment, a clear demonstration of the idea of Divine judgment.

A righteous individual is always inquiring, attempting to understand more of the Divine. In this instance, witnessing Divine judgment would have resulted in greater insights into how God relates to the world. Such an analysis would have added much to Noah’s perfection. Therefore, the purpose of the tzohar was more than a means of bringing in light; it was truly a window into the system of Divine reward and punishment.


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