Is It Better To Be Alive?

Noah's ark is probably the most popular of the Genesis stories. Here was one man in a generation of evildoers who merited salvation. He builds an ark, saves himself, his immediate family and representatives of each family of the animal kingdom from the flood that destroys all land-living creatures. God then "remembered Noah and all of the animals in the ark" and the flood receded.

What exactly did God remember? After all, He had Noah build the ark in the first place, so what had He to suddenly remember in order to end the flood? And what did the animals do to be "remembered" as well? Finally, wherein lied Noah's goodness that saved him?

According to Rashi, the animals merited salvation because they did not conjugate during the entire time of the flood. Thus, these animals demonstrated self-control and merited saving. It is significant that Noah's merit is minimized in this Rashi.

Ramban has a fundamental problem with this approach. After all, he says, animals do not have free choice at all, so how can one speak of their performing a "good" deed by refraining from conjugating during the flood?

Rather, says the Ramban, God remembered the original reason He created the world, and decided to preserve it and save Noah and his shipmates. God saw the life on the vessel and remembered why He had created life in the first place.

Fair enough, but I would like to suggest a combination of the Ramban's and Rashi's approaches, I believe that Noah was saved because he was a thoroughly good man. He was untouched by the violence, promiscuity and evil abandon of every single other person. It was so bad, say the sages, that the animals were corrupted as well. Noah was the opposite, he walked with God.

But I will venture to guess that Noah was depressed. He was depressed because he felt powerless to change anything. He sighed when he read the news, he groaned when another outrage took place, but he felt unable to do anything to influence change. Thus, the source of his depression was a complete absence of hope. Example: Noah did not have children until he was 500 years old!!! The others of his time got around to it in 1/5 the time. Why so? Perhaps because of his depression and pessimism.

You see, depression's worst symptom is functional paralysis. The depressed person just wants to sleep, physically or energetically. This aspect of Noah never fully left him. It would neatly explain why, after the flood, he took to getting drunk. The depressed person may seek an escape. Without a sense of hope for a great future, life can be painful.

So much so that the sages make the following incredible observation: "It would have been easier for a man had he never been created in the first place. But now that he is created, he shall search his deeds." Pardon me, but is that not like an overly sarcastic "Thank you very much?" If it would have been easier for us to not be here, why do we thank God every day for creating us?

The answer is hinted at in the word "easier". Let's face it, life requires effort if you want to accomplish anything. And the only people who accomplish things are those who believe great things are possible. Depressed people do not accomplish, because they don't even try. They are not bad people! They are just, well, depressed. Noah was thoroughly good. His problem was depression-induced functional paralysis. This was a man who waited 500 years to have kids. God had to jump start him. So he told him to build an ark. Get going, get out there. Let your actions change your mood.

And thus, depressed Noah, built the most famous and important ship ever. I believe that's what God remembered. God's dilemma was whether there would be hope for the world if He saved it. He looked and he saw an astounding thing. A depressed, but good, man, broke out of his shell and did a brazen thing in order to save all the world. Noah could have said "Not me, God," but he didn't even peep. Moses, later on, tried to get out of his calling with excuse after excuse, but not Noah. He jumped. Yes, it took 100 years to build the thing, but one man making a cruise liner of that size would take some time!

When God looked at what Noah had made, at who and what he brought into the ark, at he had accomplished in order to save the world, God felt, as it were, tremendous hope. He immediately started the floods recession and the rebuilding of the world. Noah wasn't out of the woods, wasn't healed (as seen in the drunken episode after the flood), but with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, he hit that home run.

I might add that the animals were also part of this success story. At times we hear of dolphins saving a human from sharks, and of dogs sleeping on a baby who crawled out of the house in winter and keeping it warm. Animals, while they don't have free choice, can choose to save lives other than their own. I think that by refraining from procreating during the flood, this was at play. More pups and babies would have drained the food supply too much. The animals were determined to survive. Thus they, too, must have had that magic commodity, hope.

So when the sages say it would have been "easier" for a human to never have been created, they mean easier, not better. The Hebrew word for easier is, not coincidentally, "Noah". Thus, the phrase might imply that Noah was among those who would have preferred to never be born. "Noah is to those who would have never been born." But now that a man has been born, he must give thanks to God. Why? Because if we thank God for being born, if we value being alive, it is only because we have hope. And if we have hope, we will do things to fix the world.

Thus, the conclusion of the saying, "Now that he has been created, let him search his deeds." In other words, DO. Create, and you will develop hope. Motion creates emotion.

So to borrow the Ramban's idea, by giving thanks, or better, by admitting that God created us, we acknowledge WHY He created us, and that is to fix the world and do great things. Once we have that hope and that commitment to do, to accomplish, to never give up, it is clear to us what a blessing life is.

As the song from Damn Yankees goes, "Ya gotta have hope!"

Where Is Noah's Ark?

The legend of the flood is remarkable in that it finds echoes across many different cultures, in every region of the world. The Hopi Indians in North America talk about righteous people surviving a flood by floating in giant reeds. Indigenous tribes in Hawaii talk about a righteous man who survived the flood in a ark and saw a rainbow at the flood's end. The famous Gilgamesh epic from Mesopotamia includes the survivor sending out a dove and a raven to see if the waters had receded.

All of this indicates that the flood is, indeed, accurate history. If so, it's reasonable to expect that a vessel as large as the ark might indeed have survived. Those who believe it has, claim it lies under the ice that permanently covers the summit of 17,000 foot Mount Ararat, in Northeastern Turkey. So far, though, all of the photographs, videos, and testimonies, are unconvincing at best.

After the biblical flood has receded and Noah and his family have emerged from the ark, they bring a sacrifice of thanksgiving to the Lord. God smelled the pleasant aroma of their sacrifice, and decided that He would never bring another flood of such magnitude to the world. The Torah tells us God's reasoning: "For man's inclination is just evil from his youth, and therefore I shall not destroy everything as I have done."

That is a very strange reason! If man's inclination is evil, that sounds like more of a justification to bring more punishments, not less!

The biblical commentary of Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin expresses one line of understanding. Prior to the flood, he says, the physical substance of the earth was thicker and more influential over the character of man. So much so, that once man became entrapped in his evil ways, he could not escape. It was, in a sense, a form of spiritual quicksand. After the flood, however, the physical earth had been purified by the waters. Now, man's physical essence had been weakened. This gave his spirit a fighting chance. (Perhaps this can explain the dramatically decreased lifespans of the post-flood generations.)

The main word, according to Rabbi Sorotzkin, in God's explanation for His change of heart is "Inclination." Before the flood, man's essence had become evil. God only destroys when there is no hope of redemption. After the flood, man's good essence, presumably inherited from Noah, was primary. Any evil behavior was a function of man's inclination, the temptations of the moment. Before the flood, man was described as having "Only evil thoughts, all of the day." Now, man had a chance to think and do good things as well.

I believe that Noah's Ark does, indeed, exist, in a much more important place. Think about Noah. Here is a man surrounded by the most corrupt culture and history, who maintained his decency. Noah had tremendous faith, Noah refused to join in with the violence and upheavals of pre-flood society. That was a time when anarchy reigned, when the powerful judges abused their power to steal whatever they wished. "The land was filled with violence and theft." The rabbinical commentaries add sexual corruption even amongst the animals to underscore just how bad things were.

Imagine being one person in that whole crazy world who knew this was wrong! What tremendous strength of character! And so, God chose Noah and those he influenced, namely, his family, as the last great hope for humanity.

And inside that ark, something even more wonderful took place. The entire animal kingdom sent representatives to survive the flood. Who took care of them? Noah and his family. This was an intense, full time job of loving kindness. The ark was a bastion of faith, decency, morality, and caring.

I believe that any place where these character traits are taught, encouraged, and practiced, is where Noah's ark is. The world is going through upheavals, as it has been more or less since then. There are tremendously evil people and groups that wish to destroy civilization. The call of the extremist is very powerful. Those schools, houses of worship, places of kindness such as nursing homes, hospitals, homes for the disabled and so many thousands and millions of others, are all Noah's ark.

You see, when God smelled that sacrifice, he was smelling the beautiful aroma of Noah's beautiful character, his faith and his caring. God said that this is the real potential of humanity. If humanity does fall, it is only a temporary inclination. Whenever we see the world around us sending negative messages and descending into negative behavior, we should go into a Noah's Ark to find new strength.

And, then, we must also leave the ark and reenter the world as Noah did. But when we leave the ark, we must make sure that the ark never leaves us.