By Rabbi Josh Weinberg
Friday October 8, 2021 – ב׳ חֶשְׁוָן תשפ״ב
צֹ֣הַר ׀ תַּֽעֲשֶׂ֣ה לַתֵּבָ֗ה וְאֶל־אַמָּה֙ תְּכַלֶּ֣נָּה מִלְמַ֔עְלָה וּפֶ֥תַח הַתֵּבָ֖ה בְּצִדָּ֣הּ תָּשִׂ֑ים תַּחְתִּיִּ֛ם שְׁנִיִּ֥ם וּשְׁלִשִׁ֖ים תַּֽעֲשֶֽׂהָ׃
Make an opening for daylight in the ark and terminate it within a cubit of the top. Put the entrance to the ark on its side; make it with bottom, second, and third decks. (Genesis 6:16)
In 1979, Israeli pop star Matti Caspi composed a song for Yehudit Ravitz “לקחת את ידי בידך “(“You Took my Hand in Yours”) in which the well-known lyricist Yankele Rothblit penned the famous line: “דברים שרואים משם לא רואים מכאן” – “Things that you see from there, you can’t see from here.” That line offers an important lesson about life, perspective, and the truth about our perceived reality.
A few days ago, during a conversation with a Minister in the Israeli Government, the Minister, a former IDF general, waxed emphatically about Israel’s moral superiority. He claimed that “no other army in the world could come close to the effort we make to minimize the loss of human life and collateral damage.” He then asked, “How can it be that what we see so clearly – what is so painfully self-evident and is generally accepted as plain and obvious truth by most Israelis, is not seen by many liberal Jews abroad?” He genuinely wanted to know why “what we see from here is not seen from there?”
The next day, in another conversation, a prominent Druze-Israeli media personality turned politician, exclaimed that yes, “Zionism is, and should be an ideology that seeks equality, egalitarianism, pluralism, and justice. That is so plainly obvious. Why can’t more people see it that way? Why do some people feel threatened by the thought of giving equal rights to minorities and opportunity to marginalized identities? Can’t they see what is so obvious to you and me?”
Soon after creation was completed, humans resorted to violence and lawlessness. God decided to wipe the slate clean and start over. Sparing Noah and his family, God instructed him to build an ark and board it while the floodwaters covered the earth. A peculiar detail was included here – a specific instruction to build a window or skylight.
God told Noah: “A Tzohar you shall make to the ark, and in a cubit, you shall finish it above” (Genesis 6:16). The term “Tzohar” often translates as “window.” The ambiguity and imaginative use of the word צֹ֣הַר – tzohar may stem from its status as an hapax legomenon, a word that appears only once in the entire Hebrew Bible, lacking further points of reference and comparison.
The 12th-century commentator Ibn Ezra breaks it down matter-of-factly:
“Tzohar (a light) means an opening through which light enters. It comes from the same root as tzohorayim (noon).”
Rabbi Yoḥanan commented (Talmud, Sanhedrin 108b):
“The Blessed Holy One said to Noah: Set precious stones and jewels in the ark so that they will shine for you as the afternoon [tzohorayim] sun.”
“Rabbi Yohanan portrays God as commanding Noah to isolate himself without windows but with the protection of a precious stone, a miraculous private light symbolizing Divine love and emphasizing that he was chosen to survive and restore humanity. There is a beautiful safety and even intimacy created by this insular sanctuary,” teaches Rabbi Dr. Meesh Hammer-Kossoy.
Sometimes the safety of insularity reveals an underlying lack of sophistication and worldliness. The rabbis of the Talmud suggested that they might benefit from going beyond their own echo chambers out into the world.
“פוּק חָזִי מַאי עַמָא דָבַר” (ברכות מ״ה ע”א)
“Go out and observe/see what the people are doing.”(Talmud, Brakhot 45a)
When there wasn’t a clear halakhic verdict, the rabbis mandated going out and seeing what the trend was among the people. What were they doing? How were they behaving? Paraphrasing the non-profit guru Peter Drucker -“Culture eats strategy for breakfast,” or as New Yorker economics correspondent James Suweicki noted, we should think about the “Wisdom of Crowds.” One can be right about something, but if the amcha-people, aren’t on board one can be as nominally right as ever, but it won’t matter.
The directive of “פוּק חָזִי- go out and see for oneself” can’t happen if we close ourselves in and shut everyone else out. If I’m so convinced of my truth that I can’t possibly imagine how others can see things differently, then it’s time to install a window to let in a little light and to peer outwards.
Rabbi Sid Schwartz, commenting on the story of the flood in Parashat Noah, wrote:
“Yet I know that to close my eyes, to close my door, to opt-out would be tantamount to rejecting all that I have been taught to value and cherish. Judaism, as I understand it, demands that we humanize oppressed populations, not demonize and victimize them. And when societies begin to go awry, my obligation is to do my best to re-engage in the public square, not to flee from it.”
Re-engage in the public square we must. If we are living in our own ‘Arks,’ can we install large enough windows from which to see the world and let the light in?
So, what is the tzohar? It’s not just a window to open and let in light and fresh air. It’s a symbol of our connection to the world, our willingness to impact and contribute and to be vulnerable to outside influences. Will we be able ever to see what’s obvious to others and get people to see what’s obvious to us? Maybe, and maybe not.
I have no doubt that the case of “others not seeing what is so obvious to us” will continue to agitate, but through the light of our tzohar, maybe the Israeli Minister can begin to hear what bothers those who see things differently. Through the lens of a tzohar the Druze-Israeli politician turned emissary, can shed more light where there is darkness, and also understand how it is that some see things differently. Instead of letting our insularity unravel our communities, we need to open the window and see the world around us, be vulnerable and let in light – we might even find dry land on which to stand.