Building an Ark: Three Things I Learned from Noah

I'm building an Ark. Never in my 17 years of Los Angeles living have I seen so much rain. The scientific facts of rainfall in inches don't interest me; it's the experience of the rain that matters, exploring how the rain effects us that I find intriguing. Just as the archeological evidence around the Great Flood and Noah's Ark are slim, it is the story that matters.

In case you are one of the very few lucky people who didn't have the Old Testament Book of Genesis thrust upon you at a young age, the story of Noah and his Ark can be summed up thus:

A righteous man is told by God that there will be a great flood and that he should build a giant ark to insure the survival of his family and all animal species. He gathers the animals in couples and the rain begins. It rains for 40 days and 40 nights until the ark rests atop Mt. Ararat. (This is where the timing gets tricky, somehow 40 days turn into six to seven months, possibly 10 months depending on the source.) After seven days, Noah sends out a raven to search for dry land. It feasts on carrion and doesn't return. After seven more days, he sends out a dove, which comes back with an olive branch indicating that dry land exists. After another seven days, Noah sends the dove out again and it doesn't return indicating that the flood had receded. Noah and those who accompanied him on his ark safely emerge from their long confinement to dry land.

Rabbi Winston, please forgive me if I have butchered this story in anyway. You trained me well for my bat mitzvah, but that was a long time ago. Your bad breath and long white beard however will be forever imprinted in my mind, as is the significance of the dove. It is in the story of Noah that the dove takes on mythical status. It becomes the friend of man and the image of the olive branch in its beak -- forever a symbol of peace. This branch is a sign of hope to those who had been sequestered in the ark, a sign of life on earth when their faith had waned. The branch is possibility, the future.

Lesson 1: Observe a Sabbath, take a day of rest.

The timeline of this story is a little vague as is often the case for things that happened thousands of years ago and maybe never happened at all. Even so, a poignant message is revealed in its chronology: respect for the Sabbath. All actions take place either on a Friday, a Sunday or a Wednesday, honoring this "Day of Rest." It's no accident, I'm sure that the Hebrew name "Noah," actually means "rest."

Taking a day of rest is a challenge for many of us in modern culture. Trying to stay ahead of the game in work, care for our families and heaven forbid also take time to exercise can keep us on the treadmill for 18 hours a day, every day.

My brother and his wife, both Ph.D.s, are two of the hardest working people I know. They are efficient with their time to a fault and seem to be able to navigate all aspects of life seamlessly. For years they worked seven days a week without fail. It wasn't even open for discussion. On a visit a couple of years back, they actually spent the majority of the day with me and I expressed my surprise, inquiring as to when they were going to get back to work. My brother explained that they had done an experiment and found that whether they worked seven days a week or knocked it down to six, they got the same amount of work done.

Lesson 2: Say Grace, offer gratitude for each meal.

"After the flood, Noah was the first tiller of the soil. He planted a vineyard; and he drank of the wine." Between Noah and Michelle Obama's organic garden at the White House, the message is clear: have a connection to the food you eat. If we don't have the time or means to grow our own food, we can at least just take a moment to pause before we eat. We can consider where our food came from, how many hands labored to bring it to our mouths and have gratitude that we get to enjoy the meal. In addition, the act of eating is really an act of "one-ness," "union," yoga. It is the moment when we become one with the planet.

Lesson 3: Choose what goes on the ark, choose carefully what survives.

The massive flood that consumed the earth at that time, wiped away all but the carefully selected. Noah made lucid decisions about what would go on the ark for survival. This foresight was a luxury that has not been afforded to many who lost their homes, their families and even their lives in recent disasters. All of it makes me question my own value system. If the flood came to me, as it did to so many just a few weeks ago, what would I save? Who would I reach out to? What would survive?

Rain is representative of washing things clean, of wiping away the past and also bringing new life. The rain spring cleans the earth and triggers our desire to spring clean ourselves -- body, mind and soul. What is it that we are willing to let go of? Whether it is cleaning out the closet, re-evaluating relationships that don't serve or going on a cleanse, the rain outside is inspiration. Building our own metaphorical ark is a way of protecting that which is sacred to us.

Angelenos have a strong reaction to rain. It seems for them (like Noah) when it rains, everything stops. For years I have looked down on this, thinking it was "wimpy," deducing that they were just lazy when it came to doing anything that involved the extra effort that the rain brought with it. But I've revised my hypothesis. Angelenos are like Noah. When it rains, they use the opportunity to go inward, to hibernate and evaluate. They use this precious time to stop the rat race of their usual lives, and in this pause they see what is really important to them. They see who they connect with, what they really want to do with their time -- what will survive. This pause reveals their true nature and allows a new equilibrium to unfold. Like Noah, when the rain has cleared, they emerge refreshed and new.

As the rain continues to pound away over Los Angeles today, instead of complaining that I don't get to go to the beach, I'm going Biblical. I'm building an ark.