God said to Noah, “I have decided to put an end to all flesh, for the earth is filled with lawlessness because of them: I am about to destroy them with the earth. Make yourself an ark of gopher wood; make it an ark with compartments, and cover it inside and out with pitch. This is how you shall make it: the length of the ark shall be three hundred cubits, its width fifty cubits, and its height thirty cubits. Make an opening for daylight in the ark, and terminate it within a cubit of the top. Put the entrance to the ark in its side; make it with bottom, second, and third decks.
“For My part, I am about to bring the Flood—waters upon the earth—to destroy all flesh under the sky in which there is breath of life; everything on earth shall perish. But I will establish My covenant with you, and you shall enter the ark, with your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives. And of all that lives, of all flesh, you shall take two of each into the ark to keep alive with you; they shall be male and female. From birds of every kind, cattle of every kind, every kind of creeping thing on earth, two of each shall come to you to stay alive. For your part, take of everything that is eaten and store it away, to serve as food for you and for them.” Noah did so; just as God commanded him, so he did. (Genesis 6:13-22, courtesy of Sefaria)
Really, we don’t know why Noah, of all people on earth during its dark beginnings, was chosen to carry on the human line. God could have started over (anybody remember Lilith?), or God could have plucked out some friends for Noah beyond his wife, sons, and daughters-in-law. God didn’t. Instead, God gave God’s orders, and Noah, the good walker alongside that he was, followed right along.
And on the seventh day the waters of the Flood came upon the earth. In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, in the second month, on the seventeenth day of the month, on that day All the fountains of the great deep burst apart, And the floodgates of the sky broke open. The rain fell on the earth forty days and forty nights. (Genesis 7:10-7:12, courtesy of Sefaria)
It can’t have been easy. Construct a floating box, get in the floating box, make your family follow you into the floating box, collect 2 (or 14– it gets confusing– read Genesis and you’ll see what I mean) of every animal to hang out with you in the floating box, and wait.
Before I started rabbinical school, I spent a year living in rural southwest China, where there was a distinctive wet season. It rained for part of at least 40 days straight. It was tough. I wanted blue sky as much as I wanted indoor plumbing. I felt trapped by the seemingly endless damp that seeped into everything from my clothes to my hair (oh my poor hair) to my motivation to leave my home and connect with the local community. Rain is tough. Hanging out in a floating box while it’s raining is tougher. Hanging out in a floating box during the flood–the mayim mabul (מים מבול) aka “the water that wore out everything, cast everything into confusion, and brought everything down from the heights” according to Rashi— yeah, that’s toughest. God didn’t tell Noah what awaited him in the box or what would await him on the other side. As much as we modern humans like to complain about God taking a big step back from the old interventionist mentality, we might have the better end of the deal here. Who can say? All I know is that, if I were Noah, the Torah would have needed an extra chapter or two to record my flipping out about the flood, the floating box, and the general uncertainty of everything that would happen as a result of both.
A few weeks ago, I found myself flipping out about something else. As a rabbinical student, you see, I am required to go study in Israel for an academic year. When I tell people this, they often respond with something along the lines of “Oh my goodness, you must be so excited!” or “What an incredible opportunity!” or “Wow, I wish I could go with you!” But here’s the truth: I don’t want to go. It’s not that I don’t see the value inherent in studying there, or appreciate the chance to improve my Hebrew (and hopefully Arabic), or even feel some eagerness to live in a new culture for the first time since returning from China five years ago. No, I don’t want to go because I don’t know what’s coming, and I’m afraid of being alone and of being separated from the majority of my classmates (who, for a variety of reasons, are not being required to spend a full academic year studying in Israel). As this summer has slipped closer and closer to its end, and my flight to Ben Gurion has evolved from an abstraction to something very real happening very soon, I have found myself growing closer to panic. Recently, I sat down at my calendar and counted weeks. How many weeks would I be in Israel if all went according to plan?
40 weeks. I would be in Israel for 40 weeks.
I don’t know how to describe exactly what feeling came over me in that moment. All I know is that I felt a sudden peace with the uncertainty to come. The number 40 matters in Judaism. 40 days of the flood. 40 days of Moshe receiving revelation atop Mt. Sinai. 40 seah of water in a mikvah. 40 weeks of gestation. 40 years in the desert.
40 isn’t just any number. It’s a number that marks transformation, an entry into new existence. Learning that I would be spending 40 weeks in Israel helped me to see my time studying there as a time of transformation in line with that of my literal or mythic ancestors. Israel is going to be my ark, my floating box that will lead me to something new. I am going alone, but I am going with a tradition. In that, there is comfort.
So stick around. I’ll be writing about 40, about Noah, about Moshe, about Torah, about Israel, about Palestine, about being a 29-year-old female rabbinical student who speaks better Mandarin than Hebrew (for now– if that hasn’t changed by June I’m gonna have issues), about baking without an oven–oh, and about Judaism too, I imagine. If you know me in real life, this will probably be your best way to see what I’m up to in the Land. If you don’t know me in real life, I hope this gives you some food for thought in some form or another. For now, time to pack. The ark floats in a week.