120 years, 120 words

Insights into Parashat Noach.

Rabbi Dr. Raymond Apple

Judaism Noah's ark
Noah's ark

The kabbalists point out that the Hebrew for an ark, tevah, also means a word.

Human beings can insulate themselves from destruction by means of an ark, but also through the power of the word.

If they are careful with their speech they can create a climate of kindness and civilisation, but if they choose the wrong words they risk spreading callousness and cruelty and no-one is safe.

Like Noah it takes a lifetime – traditionally 120 years – to work on the challenge. It is never easy to prefer constructive ways of speaking but in the end this is what will save us.

The rabbis say that the sword and the book came down to earth at the same time and each had the ability to destroy the other. The Noah story shows us how to ensure that the book will prevail.


Can you spell "No'ach" with seven mistakes?

It’s almost impossible. After all it is only a two-letter word, nun-chet.

But once you start to work on it, you find quite a number of possibilities. Instead of chet you can write chaf. You can put in a vav to get the "o" sound. You can insert a yud after the vav. You can try an alef or an ayin for the "a". There are a few mistakes already.

But why try the game at all? Because there is a Yiddish saying, No'ach mit zieben greizen – "No'ach with seven mistakes".

These sayings are never nearly as silly as they might seem. In this case we are being told that people can always do an easy thing wrongly.

Tell someone you'd like them to carry out a simple task and they will probably protest, "That's too easy! Now, if you would give me something really hard to do…"

Actually they might do better with the hard task, because they would concentrate more and give it more effort.

The lesson they need to learn is that an easy task properly performed is also an achievement.

That is possibly why the sages say in Pir'kei Avot, "Be as careful with a 'light' mitzvah as with a 'heavy' one".


What a wonderful social structure the generation of Babel seem to have set up.

Property was shared, decisions were made jointly, selfishness was suppressed, and everything appears perfect.

Idealism in action! Commonality established! How could God do anything other than applaud?

Yet the Almighty decided otherwise. He saw that there was something so wrong on earth that the Babel scheme was dangerous.

Where was the problem? From the extreme of selfishness that characterised the generation of Noah they had gone to the other extreme. The community was everything, the individual was squashed.

We see how neither extreme was deserving of survival. The best pattern is always a balance between individual and community.