Life On a Storm-Tossed Sea: Commentary on Parashat No’ach 5784

By Rabbah Rona Matlow, Professor of Jewish Diversity Studies at Hebrew Seminary


I served in the US Navy for 22 years. During that time, I deployed on two submarines, two nuclear powered cruisers, an anti-submarine frigate, and a destroyer tender (repair ship). I travelled most of the world’s oceans and had the “pleasure” of experiencing quite a bit of rough weather during that time.

Most readers will have experienced some form of rough weather on land. Whether that is a hurricane, cyclone a Nor’easter, a monsoon, or any other type of heavy storm—you no doubt have experienced very heavy rain fall along with very strong winds, and perhaps even hail. Maybe there were tornadoes present, or microbursts, doing lots of damage. When these storms occur at sea, you can include the action of the waves, the tides (affected by the lunar state) and various currents as well. Anyone who has watched The Perfect Storm or Deadliest Catch knows what I’m talking about.

In this week’s Torah portion, No’ach, God tells Noah that the end of life on Earth is nigh due to rampant evil. God tells Noah to build an ark so that he can help save humanity and land animals. The dimensions of the ark that God commands Noah to construct reflect some seafaring knowhow. In Genesis 6:15, God instructs Noah as follows:


וְזֶ֕ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר תַּֽעֲשֶׂ֖ה אֹתָ֑הּ שְׁלֹ֧שׁ מֵא֣וֹת אַמָּ֗ה אֹ֚רֶךְ הַתֵּבָ֔ה חֲמִשִּׁ֤ים אַמָּה֙ רׇחְבָּ֔הּ וּשְׁלֹשִׁ֥ים אַמָּ֖ה קוֹמָתָֽהּ׃

And this is how you shall make it: The length of the ark shall be 300 ammot; the width of the ark shall be 50 ammot, and the height of the ark shall be 30 ammot.


I didn’t translate the plural word ammot (אמות). One singular ammah (אמה) is roughly one arm’s length, assumed to be approximately 18 inches or 1½ feet. These measures produce an ark stretching a length of 450 feet and a width (or “beam” in nautical terms) of 75 feet. These dimensions alone closely resemble the dimensions of the USS Arleigh Burke DDG 51, the most effective and reliable class of modern warships in the US inventory. The Burke is 505 feet long and 60 feet in beam. The dimensions are not identical, but the ammah is not a precise measurement either.

The launching of a ship is always an awe-inspiring moment. Yet, the modern and many hands and tools that came together to build this craft pales in comparison to the idea that a simple farmer like Noah could follow God’s verbal instructions and build a seaworthy craft that could withstand such incredibly fierce weather!

As we know, Noah took his ark into the very rough waters of the mabbul (מבול), the flood that God caused. During the storm, he would have experienced all of the conditions I have described above.

Most communities that read a Haftarah—a prophetic reading appended to the weekly torah reading—will read these words from Isaiah 54:11, wherein God addresses the abandoned people Israel:


עֲנִיָּ֥ה סֹעֲרָ֖ה לֹ֣א נֻחָ֑מָה הִנֵּ֨ה אָנֹכִ֜י מַרְבִּ֤יץ בַּפּוּךְ֙ אֲבָנַ֔יִךְ וִֽיסַדְתִּ֖יךְ בַּסַּפִּירִֽים׃

Afflicted, tossed ship that is not comforted! Behold, I will lay building stones and set your foundation with sapphires.


Israel has become a tossed ship (the reason so many elect to read this Haftarah with No’ach).

Being on a storm-tossed ship is intense on many levels. On one submarine operating in the Atlantic, we experienced an Atlantic hurricane and, even at several hundred feet of depth, still got tossed by the storm. Our sailors were unaccustomed to a ride like this, and our boat was not mission-capable in seas like this.

This sort of disturbance is why when, on one clear day in the eastern Caribbean, aboard our frigate, the USS Capodanno FF-1093, we observed a waterspout (similar to a tornado) coming straight at us and were forced to make a 90 degree turn and to go to maximum speed to avoid it.

On one cruiser, the USS California CGN-36, we experienced extremely heavy winds in Adak, Alaska—exceeding 60 miles per hour, pushing us away from the pier. These winds were so powerful that we broke the strong tow lines on the tugs that were trying to pull us into the dock. We canceled the port call and returned on a subsequent day.

On the repair ship, the USS Shenandoah AD-44, crossing the North Atlantic one December, the due to a winter Nor’easter, that we were taking green water over the bridge. The green water—solid water that the human eye cannot see through (almost as if you are under water)—came from giant crashing waves. Given that the bridge of our ship was 80 feet above sea level, the peak of this wave must have measured around 100 feet. On this extremely rough ride, I worried at times about the keel of the ship breaking. This is certainly the very anxiety felt by the sailors in the Book of Jonah, when they weighed throwing Jonah overboard (Jonah 1:4–15).

Every sailor experiences rough weather at times. I’ve had my share. Fortunately, I never had to bug out for any hurricanes. If a hurricane is going to hit a Navy base, the ships there will put out to sea, leaving the families behind to deal with the mess. Though ships can stay safe at sea, when a ship is moored at the dock, it becomes very vulnerable. The disconnect between life on the land and life at sea poses such challenges as these to military families.

Life on a modern naval vessel is clearly very different than life was on the ark. The US Navy never has myriad four-legged animals on board and is blessed with modern conveniences, such as electricity and refrigerated food. But when weather hits, mortal fears become real. A sailor may become violently seasick or doubt whether the ship will survive a storm. As those sailors in the Book of Jonah found, fervent prayer may feel like the best solution in desperate times.

Whatever happened on that ark, it was no pleasure cruise.






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