As the Torah portion Noach opens, God declares that humanity has become so corrupt that God has no choice but to wipe out the entire population and begin anew. Only Noah, his wife, his sons and his daughters-in-law are to be spared. Noah is commanded to gather representatives of each species of animals and build an enormous ark. Once Noah, his family and the animals are enclosed safely in the ark, there is a great flood. They do not emerge until one full year later, and indeed, they find that all of humanity has been wiped out. The parsha concludes with the story of the Tower of Babel, in which God confounds humanity's language as a punishment for their foolish attempt to reach the heavens.
In the Torah's account of the flood, nothing is revealed about what occurs within the ark while the torrential waters pour down upon the earth. It seems reasonable to ask what it was like for Noah and his family during the year they were inside the ark. How did they spend their time? Were they joyous, overwhelmed by gratitude for having been spared? Or was it a time of mourning for all that was destroyed as they realized their lives would never be the same?
The Midrash provides the details left out of the Torah's account and describes the scene inside the ark as most difficult. Noah and his sons, and presumably his wife and daughters-in-law, never got a good night's sleep, for they were occupied day and night caring for the animals, feeding each species the diet it was accustomed to eating on its usual schedule. As the waters poured down from the sky, the ark shook violently and the animals roared and screamed. Noah and his family were afraid and prayed for their lives. In the end, Noah is so terrified that he only emerges from the ark when God orders him to do so and, when he does, he is a broken man, limping and spitting up blood from injuries sustained during his difficult journey.
I appreciate the Midrash's account because it cautions us from thinking that Noah simply had it easy. Yes, his life was spared, but in return he also had to endure an extraordinarily difficult year before he could participate in the new world. When life is at its toughest and we have entered an especially dark place, we can easily fantasize about leaving everything behind and starting over. The parsha teaches us that while new beginnings are possible, transitions themselves can be enormous challenges. I imagine that once Noah emerged from the ark and had his first taste of beginning life anew, he indeed was filled with gratitude for this great blessing. Surely, he came to feel that his year of suffering in the ark was small compared to the great opportunity for a second chance at life, but he may not have been so sure during the journey.
May each of us have the wisdom to know that starting over is never without its own challenges. May we learn to brave the rough waters, and may we embrace our return to dry land with gratitude and joy.
Prepared by Rabbi Amber Powers, Dean of Admissions and Recruitment, Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.
Additional commentaries and text studies on Parshat Noach at MyJewishLearning.com.