Friday, October 27, 2006

Noach - Did the Animals Fit?

When G-d created Adam, He gave him a tour of all the trees of the Garden of Eden and then said to him: “See how beautiful and praiseworthy My work is? Everything I created, I created for you! See to it that you don’t mess up and destroy My world.” (Midrash Kohelet 7:13)
That was the original mandate, but man sure does mess things up. The sins of Adam, Eve and their son Cain were just the beginning of the great decline. By the end of parshat Bereishit, the early days of utopia in the Garden are long forgotten. The world is a very different place now – cruel, corrupt and evil. G-d runs out of patience and dooms His creations to destruction by flood. Fortunately, Noach found favor in G-d’s eyes, so He tips him off.
"Make yourself an ark of cedar wood… This is how you should construct it: The ark’s length shall be 300 cubits, its width 50 cubits, and its height 30 cubits…" (Genesis 6:14,15)
Of course, if G-d is going to save humanity then animal life must also be saved:
"From all life, all flesh, bring two of each kind into the ark to live with you – male and female. From each separate species of bird, from each separate species of livestock and from each separate species of live animals, bring to yourself two of each kind to live. Take with you all the food that will be eaten…" (Ibid 6:19)
There seems to be a fundamental flaw in this story. How are all the animals going to fit in the ark? Not to mention all the necessary food and drinking water! According to the dimensions outlined by G-d, the floor plan of the ark is 15,000 square cubits, giving its three decks a maximum total of @70,000 sq feet. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 108b) exacerbates the problem by limiting the animals to the second floor. Is this really enough room?
Christians have long grappled with this problem. “Noah's Ark: A Feasibility Study” by John Woodmorappe (298pgs!), has revived the discussion. The author makes an impressive attempt at explaining how so many animals could fit and survive inside the ark. While his conclusions are debatable, it doesn’t matter much; we Jews are quite comfortable taking a different approach. Let us read the words of the Ramban (Spain, 1194-1270):
"It is known that there are very many animals, and some of them are quite large, such as the elephant, the rhinoceros and the like… [With the addition of] the collected food for a full year for all of them, this ark cannot hold them, nor could ten more [arks] like it! Rather, this is a miracle – a small space containing a great deal."
Simple enough. It doesn’t take 298 pages to answer our question; like the flood itself, the ark was a miracle. But the miracle solution presents a new problem. The Ramban continues:
If so, [why not] just build a small boat and rely on the miracle?
It’s a great question. Why must Noach undertake such a massive project if G-d is anyhow going to be working a miracle here? The Ramban proposes two answers. Here’s a paraphrase:
· G-d wanted the ark to be immense in order to generate a buzz among the people of that generation. The ark makes headlines and people start considering the possibility of a flood… maybe they will repent.
· The ark had to be large in order to minimize the miracle. This is standard operating procedure for all biblical miracles: Man does his best and G-d does the rest.
Reading this Ramban, we get the sense that we have discovered the keys to the parsha. But to fully appreciate the Ramban’s second point we need to review the original mandate of mankind.
The very first thing said about man is this verse: “G-d took man and placed him in the Garden of Eden to service it and to protect it” (Genesis 2:15). In the language of the Midrash, G-d said to man: “See to it that you don’t mess up My world.” From the beginning, man was vested with an awesome responsibility – but he failed. His corruption led to the world’s destruction. While G-d is prepared to give man a second chance, G-d does not want a repeat performance. So He comes up with a new plan, a plan that will transform Noach into Adam 2.0.
As any good manager knows, the best way to get people to take responsibility is to give them ownership of the project. This is the idea behind the ark. Yes, G-d could have saved Noach and the animals some other way (cf. Rashi 6:14), but here was an opportunity to help man develop into his predestined role: the caretaker of the world’s spiritual and material wellbeing. Make man a partner in the salvation of life and you will end up with a very different kind of person, a person who cares.
Noach’s Ark was designed to be a place where man and G-d could work together in the creation of a better world. Noah is well aware that he can’t save the world himself, but he also knows that he has been delegated a very real and critical role. Recognition of this reality transforms man into a noble and responsible being – and it’s just as true for us today as it was for Noach then.