Noah survives the flood by building a boat to withstand the waves, and in doing so also saves life as we know it. There is a strong correlation between this story and the memorable Yona episode. Yona too, attempts to survive (to escape God’s wrath) by entering the high seas aboard a ship (Jonah 1:3). Yona miscalculates though, in his escape, as he believes that God’s providence does not hold sway over the waters and that aboard the ship he will be safe, just as was Noah (See Gittin 56b). (Curiously, Noah is saved by a yona, a dove). Let us consider how their voyages were different.
These images of ships, and their potential for life saving, evoke for me thoughts of Spanish and Portuguese Jewry. Expelled from Spain, many took ships to safer harbors in Italy and North Africa. When Jews attempted to leave Portugal in 1497, they gathered at the harbor of Lisbon, only to be forcibly converted and forced to stay. Ultimately though, these Portuguese New Christians built shipping empires, controlling much of the trade across the Atlantic and to the ports of northern Europe, like Amsterdam, Hamburg and London. There, many were able to return to their roots and to open Judaism.
For so many Jews, boats (or perhaps better to call them arks!) have been key features in their escapes from peril to ultimate survival. At the same time, the high seas were often places of danger, as it was for Yona, both because of storms and on account of bandits. Indeed, the founders of Shearith Israel in New York only reached New Amsterdam after being held captive in Spanish Jamaica, having been caught by pirates or blown off course upon their escape from the Portuguese in Brazil. Why for Yona was the sea peril, while for Noah it was salvation?
It is clear that ships are not ends in of themselves. Their function is for transport, to get people or things from one place to another. Similarly, life is full of journeys. Throughout our lives we change physically, intellectually, emotionally, professionally, and otherwise. Sometimes, we get caught up in the process, or just focus on what we wish to escape. When we lose sight of ours goals or get distracted, we get stuck at sea where we simply rock back and forth.
It is often said that life is about the process and not about the goal. However, it is the goal that ensures that we continue to point in the right direction. Goals act as our North Star. The ark of Noah was only a temporary station. Its purpose was to lead him to a lasting dwelling place upon dry land and to a new future for mankind. Surely, journeys of all sorts are the mainstay of life, but we make the most of them by always keeping our sights on our ports of call. Unlike Yona who used a journey to escape his past, Noah used his ship and his voyage, to get to his future.