Written by Faustine Goldberg-Sigal, translated from the original French article –
Here we go again! We’re starting the second lockdown – but I don’t know how long we’ll keep the count going, maybe because it’s disheartening and maybe because the lines between days and weeks have become uncertain anyway.
About ten days ago, before reading Parshat Noah, one of my colleagues mentioned the Ark that Noah built. He spends some time building this ship, she said, and filling it with what he thinks he needs to get through a time of crisis. At the end of the 40 days of the flood, he and his people emerge into a repaired and embellished world. She invited us to consider: in the rough sea we are crossing, what will serve as an Ark for you? What protects you? Some spoke of sports, reading, therapy, contact with relatives, etc,. My colleague concluded by inviting us to identify these resources as intentionally as possible, to pursue them and to protect them. If it’s human contact that we need, we need to try to identify who it helps to be in contact with and make time in our schedules to phone them, write, etc,. We were all grateful to my colleague for allowing us, through the biblical text, to take a step back from the situation we are living and perhaps identify the tools to live more intentionally and serenely.
The first question I had was how I could have this conversation in an educational setting. When and how can we give our students, and those close to us, the space and the tools needed to have this reflection? The story of the Ark is one that speaks to people of all ages – and the metaphor is easy to explain and understand. (I also have vivid memories of the educational workshop offered at the Museum of Art and History of Judaism in Paris on Noah’s Ark in which I had to participate when I was 4 years old. This is always offered there – excluding COVID – and I highly recommend it!) Children can be invited to draw, model, or build their own Ark and give it a shape representing what reassures them these days. No generation is untouched by the blues (or worse) around the situation – and it is important that we give our students a space to express this.
The Ark can also be a creative way of explaining to children the need to shut themselves away – and why, under the circumstances we live in, the government and doctors say that contact with the outside is, temporarily, a threat from which we must protect ourselves.
I then went to darker questions. First of all, Noah does not choose this adventure: it is God who decides it, it is God who chooses him and it is God who prescribes very precisely what the Ark will be. Likewise, needless to say, none of us chose to experience this pandemic. But above all, the way in which we must protect ourselves has been prescribed by the state, which defines what is allowed or prohibited. Far be it for me to question the application of these rules – but it must be said that lockdown and confinement is more tolerable to some than others. Depending on our personality, state of mental and physical health, emotional network, resources and material possessions, each of us experiences the lockdown with varying degrees of ease and challenge. Yet, it’s the same rules for everyone. For all of the teachers who strive to practice differentiated pedagogy, you undoubtedly feel the discomfort that this one size fit all model imposes.
My colleague stated that Ark protects Noah and his family and that they end up leaving it for a world that is “all beautiful.” On this point, I did not totally agree with her. In my opinion, Noah’s family comes out and sees the spectacle of a devastated, inundated and depopulated world. After the ordeal of going into the storm and isolation, they must once again face a new ordeal: mourning a shattered past while finding the energy and meaning to step forward into a devastated world to rebuild it. (We’re reminded of the episode of Noah’s intoxication – which some of us adults can perhaps empathize with Noah all too well!)
Furthermore, I was reminded of a dvar torah by Rabbi Benny Lau that I had read a few years ago. He spoke on how there are many who cherish the metaphor of the Ark as a miraculous rescue from a doomed reality. He also wrote about Israeli society which has often described itself as an Ark to save the Jews of the world from various threats. But, he noted, there comes a time when protection becomes a threat. After a few weeks, it is likely that resources would start to dwindle in the Ark, and that Noah and his family did not know how long they would still be on the water. No doubt, the noise and the smell of the locked up animals became more and more difficult to bear. No doubt, tensions were starting to rise between the members of the family. There comes a time, Rabbi Lau taught, when the sealing of the Ark must be broken. Rabbi Lau spoke within the framework of Israel, of the temptation to withdraw inward, away from external human, cultural, and diplomatic influences and their inherent risks.
Personally, these questions regarding the Ark are also crucial in regards to our current lockdown and the pandemic in general. When the flood ceases, what world will we find? Are we ready for a reality that does not match our expectations? A lot of the things we left will be gone – and some of the things we planned won’t happen. How will we find the strength to move forward out of the Ark, to re-engage in the world and not remain permanently holed up?
This is the paradox of the Ark, which saves and threatens, protects and exposes, and rests and exhausts. In addition to explaining and applying the lockdown measures to our children with all the necessary rigor, the story of Noah reminds us of the need to explain to them that this lockdown is protective as well as temporary, and that we must keep up our spirits looking to the horizon, to the end of the flood – for it will certainly be a relief, but when it comes we will need to roll up our sleeves and start again at building, transmitting and creating.