Stuck Parshas Noach

Imagine Noach in his teivah.

Stuck in a structure for an entire year.

Imagine how claustrophobic he must have felt. The screams of the animals. The stench.

I wonder if he missed his neighbors, his cousins, his parents. All dead.

Imagine his dream at night – if he slept at all. The hellish nightmares that surely woke him up in a cold sweat.

If you look at the back wall of the shul, you will see the faces of a hundred people who know exactly how Noach felt.

If these men, women, and children, ranging from the age of 3 to their 80’s are even alive, they are most certainly feeling claustrophobic right now.

They are surrounded by people speaking a language they don’t understand. They hear missiles falling, sirens, and screams.

They may have just witnessed their family members or friends murdered in front of their eyes. Or worse, they have no idea what happened to their loved ones.

I can’t imagine they are getting any accurate reports.

And the nightmares. With no one to soothe them. To hold them. To tell them it’s going to be okay.

Not to compare in any way because to do so is an insult to the horrific experience these hostages are experiencing right now – but in our own way, we are all feeling claustrophobic right now. We’re all feeling boxed in, suffocated. Someone bumped into me quite physically at the subway station the other day. Was it a mistake or was it deliberate? Are people looking at us different or is it just our imagination?

You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to think the world is out to get us right now. Did you read what our “best and brightest” signed on to at Harvard and Penn?! Our future doctors, lawyers, and judges. Our future leaders?!

Have you seen the protests across the country where the thin veil of anti-Zionism has been dropped and antisemitism is on full display?

Like Noach, we’re all feeling short of breath; walls moving in; trapped.


The Torah describes the dimensions of the teivah and then adds an intriguing detail. Tzohar taaseh lateivah, a tzohar should be made for the ark.” The Medrash relates a debate as to the meaning of this word. Rabbi Abba bar Kahana suggests that it is a window. Rabbi Levi suggests that it is a special stone that gave off light. On face value, they are debating where the light of the teivah came from, a rather technical architectural question. The first opinion suggesting that the light came from outside, whereas the second opinion arguing that there is no light outside during a vicious storm, and therefore it must have come from this special shiny stone.

But perhaps there is more at play. Perhaps Rabbi Abba bar Kahana is teaching us a relevant and personal lesson. Perhaps the window of the teivah is meant to teach us that when one feels lost and alone, when one feels like they are locked away from the rest of society and begins to give up hope – look out the window! There is always more than meets the eye. There are always people out there who can help you. As Mr. Rogers would say, “Look for the helpers.”

As dark and lonely and depressing as it is to be a Jew right now, there is also a lot of light outside. For example, the vast majority ofAmerican political leaders who are strongly supporting the Jewish People. Or the French government who attempted to outlaw supporting Hamas. Or the leadership of Germany and England who made solidarity trips to Israel. And of course, President Biden’s historic trip to Israel, lending Israel’s fight against Hamas international legitimacy, and providing all forms of needed aid to the citizens of Israel and the IDF.

As claustrophobic as we all feel, there is a lot of light shining through.

But Rabbi Levi reminds us that there isn’t always light coming in from outside. Imagine once again those many hostages who are all alone, hidden in some bunker in Gaza. They don’t know that much of the international community is cheering them on. They have no clue that President Biden just visited the region. They’re probably being fed lies day and night. They’re probably being told that Israel is losing the battle, that Hamas is winning the war.

Says Rav Levi, even when there is no light coming in from the outside, even when you are enveloped in darkness, there is a tzohar, a precious stone, that can give off light. It is possible to find hope in the midst of a terrible storm.

In the sixth century BCE, Jerusalem was surrounded by the Assyrian forces. The Assyrian army was the mightiest in the region, wreaking havoc and devastation everywhere they turned. These were the same Assyrians who conquered the Northern Kingdom of Israel and obliterated the ten tribes who lived there. Chizkiyahu, the king of Judea, was given the opportunity to surrender, but he chose not to. “I have a tradition from my great-grandfather, King David,” he proclaimed. “Afilu cherevchuda al tzavarecha, even with a sharp sword on your throat, we do not despair.” (Talmud, Berachos)

No nation provided any military support to King Chizkiyahu. And yet, the Judean Kingdom survived. All those nations who didn’t come to the aid of King Chizkiyahu, the Babylonians, the Edomites, the Moabites, they are gone. The Assyrian army is a relic of history. And yet, the Jewish People are still here.

I hope and I pray that those 203 hostages who have no window to the outside world, can draw upon that inner hope that has shined for us for so many years. I hope and pray that those 203 hostages who have no window can find their own tzohar, something to keep them going, as they face unimaginable horrors.

But you and I, as claustrophobic as we may feel, we are not stuck. You and I can do something for those trapped inside. And we must.

Do you remember how the Jewish world was turned upside down a few years ago when the three teenagers were kidnapped? Remember what we did and said for 3 people? There are now 203 who have been kidnapped!! 203 sets of mothers and fathers and children crying their eyes out!! I imagine we are all just so overwhelmed by all the news that we haven’t let it sink in that 203 men, women, and children, who are being held by people who a few days ago, violated, decapitated, burned and destroyed entire families.

There was some discussion among the shul leadership before putting those signs up in the back of the shul. We wondered if it’s too intense.

But we decided to go ahead with it, precisely because it is so intense; we cannot afford to lose sight of what these 203 hostages are going through.

So we will look into their eyes, we will read their names, we will be shocked at their ages. And now we have to ask ourselves, what can we do? I’d like to share 3 suggestions:

1) Contact your congressman. Thank him for supporting Israel and beg him to do everything in his power to bring these hostages home.
2) Show up. There are vigils, there will be rallies. Every person in attendance makes a difference. We can’t afford to say we don’t have the time when 203 people are trapped in Gaza and all alone.
3) Pray. Afilu cherev chuda al tzavarecha, even with a sharp sword on your throat, we do not despair.

G-d willing, we will have a chance to one day meet one of these 203 hostages. And we will be able to look him or her in the eye and say, I did not give up. I thought of you, I prayed for, I fought for you.

May we see that day bimheira v’yamenu, speedily in our days.

Mishna Yomi and Toilet Paper Rolls (Revisited)

This past summer, Hindy and I visited an art museum in Alexandria, Virginia to see an exhibit titled, a Year In, a retrospective of the pandemic. The first few pictures depicted the loneliness that many experienced during this time; a single chair on a rooftop overlooking a city, empty thoroughfares that we can only assume were once filled with cars and people. Some of the pieces were bizarre – a house surrounded by a cage, representing the sense of ‘stuck-ness’ that the artist felt during the lockdown. But the piece that made the greatest impression on me was a picture of toilet paper rolls. That’s right, toilet paper rolls.

In the first week of the pandemic, if you recall, toilet paper was more valuable than diamonds. For reasons I cannot even fathom now, we all thought that the biggest issue we’d have was a lack of toilet paper. There was no toilet paper anywhere. And it was during that first week of the pandemic, after finishing a roll of toilet paper, that Mark Armbruster decided to keep the cardboard tube of the toilet paper roll. Not only that, but he decided to jot down the date on the tube. Then, when he finished the next roll, he decided to do the same thing. And he kept at it. Throughout the entirety of the pandemic, for about a year and a half, Mark kept every tube of toilet paper that he and his partner finished and wrote the date on the leftover tube. The picture that made it to the exhibit was one of shelves filled with toilet paper tubes with the date that the roll was finished.

In the paragraph explaining the picture, the artist described the time warp that many experienced during the pandemic; our sense of time was completely distorted. It was those toilet paper rolls, he explained, that grounded him; it was how he kept time. The toilet paper rolls gave him a tool to ensure that time did not just pass him by; it helped him capture time. Each toilet paper, to this man, represented a chapter of his life during the past year and a half.


Time is slippery. How often do we say, where has the time gone by?

Time is so hard to capture. What? I didn’t get to do all that I intended?!

Time is our mortal enemy; we all know where time is taking us.

How do we capture our time? Trips we’ve gone on? Books we’ve read? Puzzles we’ve made? Or is it the relationships formed, the good deeds we’ve performed, and our inner growth? 

We’re attracted to the first category over the second because it is far more tangible. I could touch and feel the pictures from my grand vacations but I have nothing to show for my inner battles. And so we’re seduced by the concrete – the purchases, the awards, the shareable stories, when we all know not-so-deep inside that those are not the most meaningful accomplishments or usages of our time. 


As I was looking at that picture of toilet paper rolls, March 21st, April 3rd, April 19th… I thought of a group of people who tracked the pandemic in a very different fashion. People who completed Meseches Berachos just as the pandemic was beginning, Meseches Shabbos as things got so much worse, Meseches Eruvin through that long and difficult summer, Meseches Pesachim, Meseches Shekalim, Meseches Yomah, Meseches Sukkah, and on and on. In the struggle against time, there are those who capture her with volumes of the Talmud, and those who do so with toilet paper.

Daf Yomi is not for everyone. It’s not for most people. But there are other modes of trackable Torah study that are. This Shabbos, a new cycle of Mishna Yomi is about to begin. Mishna Yomi, quite similar to Daf Yomi, was a relatively recent innovation that attempts to give every single Jew an opportunity to connect to Torah in a comprehensive and daily fashion that is coupled together with a sense of accomplishment. It takes ten minutes of your time and in approximately five years you could learn all of Mishnayos (2 mishnayons a day). Most of the meaningful things in life are hard to track, spirituality is hard to capture, but there are exceptions to every rule, and these readily accessible Torah cycles are one of them. 

Limnos yameinu kein hoda, please grant us the ability to count our days.

Mishna Yomi: (And if Mishna Yomi is not for you, stay tuned, a new Nach Yomi, a chapter of Navi a day, is starting in just a few weeks!) 

(Adapted from a Yom Kippur drasha)