Bar Mitzvah Jacob Talbot
I find it incredibly hard to imagine the phenomenal ingenuity, design, workmanship, and maintenance that contributed to Noah’s Ark. We might dismiss it as a pure work of ancient fiction but even if we do so but this is countered by our childhood memories of hearing the story read to us, seeing the pictures of the Ark conjured up in the minds of the illustrator and the motivation of our parents in choosing to recount this Bible story.
We are taken in by the wondrous thought of et Elohim hithalech Noach – Noah walking with God – that connects the story to that of Gan Eden – the Garden of Eden with adam and chava – Adam and Eve frolicking in God’s garden as we might have done in that of a grandparent or parent. Evocative images might be recalled of the elder relative working in the garden, being stopped to play games with us or at rest – noach in Hebrew – with a thirst-quenching cup of tea in a favourite mug or perhaps teacup and saucer.
We might be struck by the fairytale notions of two of all the species of the world fitting into the dimensions of the Ark that God instructs. Today this would denote a 40,000 ton good-sized passenger ship, but to the ancients something of mythical or awe-inspiring proportions. Even the material the Ark was to be made of has a fascinating, image-inducing quality – gopher wood!
We are really not sure what this wood was. It might refer to any number of species of tree that has been suggested, none of them convincingly. Perhaps it was the style of work employed on the wood. The Septuagint (3rd–1st centuries BC), the Greek translation of the Tanakh – the Hebrew Bible - translated it as xylon tetragonon, "squared timber." The Vulgate, the Latin translation (5th century AD) rendered it as lignis levigatis, "smoothed (possibly planed) wood". Others, noting the physical similarity between the Hebrew letters gimmel and kof, suggest that the word may actually be kopher, the Hebrew word meaning “pitch;” thus kopher wood would be pitched wood. Recent suggestions have included a lamination process (to strengthen the Ark), or a now-lost type of tree, but there is no consensus.
I like the idea though that we do not know what this wood was. I like to actually think of it as extinct for this is harmonious with the theme of this sidrah, the story of Noah. Gopher wood was the material of God’s choice and provision by which the world as we know it would be saved. If in the process of the flood, it too was sent into oblivion, it serves as a reminder that our corrupt or ethical actions on earth, might determine whether we will preserve the earth and that which it brings forth for all-time, or render it into mythology.
I find it incredibly hard to imagine the phenomenal ingenuity, design, workmanship, and maintenance that contributed to Noah’s Ark and also that of incredible works that foster progression whilst treasuring the earth and its fullness. As a born-again cyclist, I was fascinated to read in the Jewish Chronicle of a bicycle made entirely of recycled materials is set to enter production within the next few months. “The full-size eco-bicycle will cost around £9 and weigh around 9kg, compared to an average of 14kg for metal bicycles.” Every part is made of recycled materials and produced on an automatic line staffed by pensioners and the disabled.
The Israeli inventor, Izhar Gafni, notes that, “The eco-friendly business model means that rebates obtained for using “green materials” would entirely cancel out production costs. This could potentially lead to the product being given away for free in poor countries.”
This eco-cycle, its phenomenal ingenuity, design, workmanship, and maintenance exemplifies all that we can do right in the world. Within it is an underlying Jewish principle, whether Izhar Gafni considered it consciously or not, that of God’s ownership of the earth and its fullness and humanities role as its custodians. It is enabled by human partnerships, government incentives harnessed by inventors and produced with sensitivity to human skills and abilities. It might benefit millions of the poorest on the planet and might even motivate us to see them as the ‘Boris bike’ of the future.
Jacob, you have been gifted skills and had them nurtured by your talented parents. They use their skills in turn to teach and encourage others to employ their abilities. It might be hard to imagine now how you or any of us might have all the attributes of phenomenal ingenuity, design, workmanship, and maintenance to bring to life a potentially life-changing product and production process, although you might. Yet if you put yourself together with all your classmates and live by the simple principle to have humility for the world around you and to desire to be its custodian, you and we can make a difference.
It is our desire to recycle, to reuse and renew life that will push leaders to incentivize a virtuous cycle. Let us not as individuals devalue our contribution. Rather let us be inspired by the desire not to let another tree become an extinct gopher, to harness all our potential to be custodians of God’s earth. The covenant of Noah is one that stands for all humanity. May we as Jews be further inspired by our particular doctrines towards phenomenal ingenuity, design, workmanship, and maintenance a covenant that holds infinite potential.