Why was it necessary for Noah to build an ark to save his family from the Flood’s destruction? Could God not have arranged an easier way to rescue him?
The Midrash raises this question, explaining that the 120 years that Noah worked constructing the enormous boat were meant to provide the people of his generation with an opportunity to repent.
Eighteenth-century scholar Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto offered an alternative explanation to that of the Midrash. He wrote that Noah needed to spend a year living inside the ark in order to prepare the foundations of a new world. Outside the ark, where flood waters swept away the world’s evil, nothing could survive. Inside the ark, the inner integrity of the world was reestablished under Noah’s direction. The soul of this great tzaddik encompassed all the souls of the world. As Noah fed and looked after the animals in his care, he renewed the world on the basis of goodness and kindness.
A similar preparatory stage of spiritual renewal took place many generations later. Before the revelation of the Zohar, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai spent thirteen years hiding in a cave. He needed this period of seclusion to purify and prepare himself for the Zohar’s inner light (Adir BaMarom 7).
This same method, Rav Kook wrote, is necessary for our own moral and spiritual growth. Change is difficult. It is not easy to correct old habits and patterns of thought. As human beings, we become accustomed to looking at life in terms of fulfilling our material needs, which can lead us to drift unthinkingly into self-centered pursuit of honor and physical pleasures.
The path to repairing one’s deeds and refining one’s character has two aspects. The first step is cognitive. We must fully understand each trait and its characteristics, and we must learn the proper time and place for their expression. Therefore our first request in the daily Amidah prayer is that God “grant us knowledge, understanding, and insight.”
Theoretical knowledge, however, is not enough. After acquiring this wisdom, we must accustom our will to whole-heartedly conform to this new path. We must strive to quiet our heart’s desires and distance ourselves from all that leads to a confused state of mind — a state that undermines the very foundations of character-building. We need to acquire a resolute and steadfast outlook and fortify our traits so that we will be able to retain our purity and holiness even when occupied in worldly matters.
Those who succeed in directing their mind and inner will in this fashion will gain control of all aspects of their lives. Those who have not carefully thought out their path, however, will lack control of their actions and desires. Such individuals need to withdraw the powers of the soul, their strengths and talents, and gather them in, like lines radiating outward that are pulled back to their focal point.
This undertaking is similar to Noah’s confinement within the ark. It can be a bitter and heavy burden to constrain the soul’s powers in such a way, since the soul naturally seeks independence and freedom. Even confinement in the body is a terrible prison for the soul; all the more so to be constrained in such a fashion.
Converging toward the nucleus of one’s mind and inner will is not a pleasant task. One may feel pained and even depressed from the constraints of this path of repair. But after the soul’s forces have become accustomed to conducting themselves properly, they may be allowed to return to their natural state. Then all aspects of one’s personality will be proper vessels for fulfilling God’s will, and one’s powers may be released to rule over the body once more, now following the dictates of the intellect.
This path of personal renewal parallels the world’s renewal in the time of Noah. The months spent in the ark were a preparatory period of converging and gathering powers under the direction of the tzaddik. But when the punishing waters receded and the inhabitable dry land appeared, the ark’s inhabitants could be freed from their confinement. So too, as character traits are repaired and perfected, they may be released once again.
During the period of confinement, one needs to “test the waters” — to measure whether one’s powers are ready to be set free. This stage corresponds to Noah’s sending out the raven and the dove. One tests one’s traits in matters that do not involve danger, just as Noah utilized birds — creatures that can fly and thus were not endangered by the flood waters. When Noah realized that the world’s repair was not yet complete, he drew them back into the ark.
The Divine command, “Leave the ark!” came only when the land was completely dry. Then it was time to serve God in an unhindered manner, for the active dissemination of Torah and acts of kindness requires an unfettered soul, full of strength and courage.
(Sapphire from the Land of Israel. Adapted from Mussar Avicha, pp. 33-39)