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Lessons Learned from Noah’s Ark: Let Your Inner Light Radiate to Others
William Liss-Levinson, Ph.D.
The Torah often vacillates between explicit details and leaving much to the imagination. God approaches Noach and tells him to build an ark in order to save himself, his family, and dyads and septets of the animal kingdom. There are detailed instructions about the materials to be used and the size of the ark. And there is both a door and a window mentioned [more on the latter, a bit later]. But we have NO information on the interior of the ark – sleeping arrangements, areas for humans and animals to eat, etc. Literally nothing –EXCEPT for one thing, described in a brief sentence, utilizing a word not otherwise seen in the Chumash.
Genesis Ch. 6:16 states “You shall make a tzohar for the ark…” The medieval commentator Rashi, commenting on this obscure word tzohar, says, “Some say this is a chalon, a window. Others say this was a precious stone that radiated light for them.” Why do we need two opinions? The problem becomes apparent when you read later, in Chapter 8, v. 6-7 “…And Noach opened the chalon/window… and he let out the raven…” So, the second opinion cited above, that this tzohar was a precious stone, is necessary–since the normative word for “window” appears within this Torah portion; tzohar must mean something else.
Rabbi Samuel Blech, z”l, rabbi of the Fur Center Synagogue in Manhattan for 4 decades, my rabbi in my teen years and the m’sader kiddushin/officiant for my wedding to my wife Nechama in June 1972, explained the difference between a window and a precious stone that radiates light. A window is a passive agent; the light or illumination that comes through the window is dependent on another external source. A precious stone that has the capacity to radiate and illuminate from its own agency is a constant and consistent source of light, and thus has greater, far-reaching potential for illumination.
In May 2020, at age 67, I retired from paid professional work after a 45-year career in healthcare. I was blessed and privileged to do many exciting things as a professional. And now I was fortunate, being in excellent physical health and financially secure, that I had the luxury of defining this next phase of my life. I already was Chair of the Board of the Academy of Jewish Religion and looked forward to having even more time to spend in this capacity with the nation’s first and oldest pluralistic Jewish seminary dedicated to educating and ordaining rabbis and cantors. There were certain causes that I wanted to actively support and be involved with. I jumped right into the thick of the Presidential campaign of 2020 and some senatorial campaigns, and I became involved in efforts to pursue much-need gun-violence prevention legislation.
The Covid-19 pandemic, however, immediately blocked some in-person opportunities at several local agencies with which I had previously volunteered on an episodic basis. Luckily, a wonderful area volunteer network had sent out an email to solicit volunteers for various agencies that were adapting their service models to accommodate remote volunteerism. While I became involved with three such wonderful agencies, I want to focus on just one. Its core model of volunteer service – mentorship of a first-generation immigrant college student – is one in which I have been afforded the opportunity to serve as a tzohar, as a precious stone that illuminates for others.
The agency, Future Link (Rockville, MD), identifies outstanding students in either their senior year of high school or first year of community college and affords them an opportunity to be involved in a multi-year program, working one-on-one with a volunteer mentor. The goal is to enable students to complete a four-year college undergraduate program and get a full-time job with benefits. Some students may pursue graduate study, and for some, their professional interest is such that a 2-year degree might be appropriate. The program starts with a 15-week course focused on goal setting, study habits and other skills necessary for success in college. Once mentor and mentee are paired, the expectation is that the relationship will continue on a weekly basis, minimally for several years.
I have been blessed to be working, on Zoom to-date, with Emmanuel, an exceptional 20-year-old, who emigrated with his family from Nigeria 6 years ago. His dream is to become a primary care physician. He is focused, determined and is an amazing initiator with great follow-through. Despite the pandemic, he has finished a two-year community college with honors, and has started his junior year at a local university. My role has been to be a source of light for him–a tzohar–helping him to have informational zoom interviews with physicians who themselves had been immigrants, looking at his internship experience with a Covid vaccination site at a community hospital, and seeing what he could learn about attitudes toward healthcare institutions and providers, about patient compliance, etc. He is already a shining star and I work to illuminate aspects of the journey he has embarked on and to shed new light and perspectives.
The long-term commitment of this relationship is one that I cherish. So is the prospect of Emmanuel becoming a physician and helping people; having a long career ahead of him, long after I will have died. Hopefully, my light will be like the stars that we see in the sky. Because stars are so far away, it takes years for their light to reach us. When you look at a star, you are seeing what it looked like years ago; it is entirely possible is no longer exists. My ability, in the present, to be a tzohar for Emmanuel assures me that I can give him a legacy of light that he will shine onto others for their health and well-being. How privileged and blessed I am to have this opportunity!