"Noah's Ark" (1846) by Edward Hicks
"Noah's Ark" (1846) by Edward Hicks

Ark, who goes there? It’s us, Noah’s fellow quarantiners

The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.


Genesis 6:9–11:32

This year, my Rosh Hashanah sermon reflected on 2½ years of isolation. We were all so happy to be able to be together in person. But the trauma of these challenging years has left us unsure how to restart regular life.

During the first 67 weeks of the pandemic, I wrote a weekly letter to my congregation. It came to be known as my “missive.” Each week, it included links to interesting articles and some musings on how our strange time of unknowns was unfolding.

On Rosh Hashanah, I looked back at the missives and wondered, with a little bit of perspective, what lessons might come of this difficult time we’ve all been living through.

Each of my missives began with the greeting, “Hello out there!” After days — and then weeks — of  isolation, it seemed to me that we needed to connect and check in on each other. Hello out there … wherever you are …  near yet far away. Hello out there, my community. Are you OK? What did you do this week?

In the second letter I sent to the congregation, I compared our own chaotic isolation (our two toddlers’ preschools shut down with no notice) with what Noah and his family might have experienced on the ark.

Though there are notable differences between being stuck at home (with children climbing the walls) and being stuck on a boat (with animals climbing the walls), there were some similarities.

As we read Parashat Noach this week, I am reminded of my musings on this subject early on in San Francisco’s shutdown.

In the Talmud, the rabbis commented on the chaos that Noah and his wife encountered, sheltering in place for 40 days and nights in their too small ark.  The famous boat was filled with all manner of diurnal and nocturnal animals, many of whom needed to be separated. How did that work?

Two weeks into the pandemic, I empathized with Mr. and Mrs. Noah. We, too, had been stuck at home with utter chaos. Like Noah and his family, we were trapped with (what felt like hundreds of) wild animals and no sign of dry land. We could never survive 40 days as Noah and his household did on the ark, I thought. Who could have imagined that this pandemic would go on some 20 times as long as the flood? (So far.)

One rainy day in March 2020, when our two toddlers were driving me particularly crazy, I wondered how Noah made it!

I was comforted by these words in the Talmud: “Shem [Noah’s son, was asked], ‘What was it like for you in the ark?’ He replied, ‘We had much trouble in the ark!  The animals which usually feed by day we fed by day, and those which normally feed at night we fed by night.’” (BT Sanhedrin 108b.19)

I could only imagine the tsuris Noah’s family put up with.

Like Noah must have, we all wondered when we’d be released back to our old lives. We longed for normal days. We looked for a sign our situation was going to shift.

In this week’s Torah portion, Noah keeps sending a dove out to see if there is any dry land. Eventually, the dove doesn’t return. And Noah knows a new beginning is ahead.

What will re-entry look like? Will everything be changed for Noah and his family after having survived a traumatic sheltering-in-place experience?

The last two challenging years have forced us to rethink most things. There are many truths we’ve discovered. And changes we see within ourselves.

We’ve learned lessons about human nature and the nature of human life.

Over the last two years, we’ve spent hours thinking about what’s really important to us. And what changes we need to keep when life eventually returns to normal.

How did Noah feel when he stepped off the ark …  and explored old places through a new lens? God promised Noah — and all of us — that God would never destroy creation again. Even as we’ve navigated this pandemic challenge, the rainbow reminds us, too, that life continues.

Rabbi Jessica Zimmerman Graf
Rabbi Jessica Zimmerman Graf

Rabbi Jessica Zimmerman Graf is the senior rabbi at Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco. She is a participant in the AJWS Global Justice Fellowship, which inspires, educates and trains American rabbis to become national advocates for human rights.