If you step into my study, you will immediately notice an oversized ark festooned with stuffed and plastic animals, a kindly old man on the deck of the vessel and any number of books or references to the biblical story of Noah. There are, in addition, throughout my work space, smaller versions of Noah’s Ark in the form of children’s toys, paperweights and decorative art.
You see, my bar mitzvah Torah portion was the story of Noah, and ever since, I have collected Noah’s Arks. The ark, as described in that story, is the conveyance upon which a single family (the remnant of all of humanity, really) in addition to all the animals of earth are saved. To this day, Noah’s ark has become the means of conveying the tale of a great flood that was brought to blot out wickedness in the world.
The Hebrew word used to describe that ark is tevah. And the word tevah is used in only one other story in the entire Torah. Significantly, the exact same word is used in this week’s Torah portion, Shemot, to describe the basket in which baby Moses is placed, when his mother, in an effort to spare his life, sends him down the Nile.
What, then, might be the connection between the story of Noah and the story of Moses? What can we learn from these two all-but-unique, yet parallel, vessels?
Italian biblical scholar Rabbi Moshe David Umberto Cassuto (1883-1951) posits that both the tevah in the story of Noah and the tevah in the story of Moses are the means by which the heroes of these stories — and, indeed, humanity and the Jewish people both — respectively, are saved.
In the case of Noah, flood waters cover the entire earth, all who are not safely within the ark are drowned; and in the case of Moses, the Nile River is the water into which all Jewish baby boys — other than baby Moses — are likewise consigned to be drowned.
From this we learn a tevah describes more than a simple basket and more than an ark; a tevah is more than a physical craft that safely bobs along the waters’ surface until either one is saved or the waters recede. Rather a tevah is the means by which any one of us is able to safely traverse what Simon and Garfunkel referred to as “troubled waters.”
“Kol ha-o-lam ku-lo gesher tzar me’od: The whole world is a very narrow bridge,” opines Hasidic master Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav. And he continues, “V’ha-i-kar lo l’fached klal: And the most important thing is not to succumb to fear.”
The world is a frightening place. So much of existence is uncertain; so many of our experiences bring us face to face with tremendous challenges. The waters of life are swift and deep and there is, indeed, much that threatens us. And so, not to be afraid? That seems unrealistic.
Better to find a means of weathering life’s storms within a tevah — within the safe embrace of another person, a community, perhaps, within one’s faith. For none of us can avoid the potentially destructive waters that swirl beneath and around the bridges we traverse.
But with the help of a tevah — a support system and a safety net — we can help one another weather life’s storms and severe decrees. And in this way bring one another to safety, security and peace: in other words, shalom. PJC
Rabbi Aaron Bisno is spiritual leader at Rodef Shalom Congregation. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Council.