One of God’s instructions to Noach regarding the construction of the ark was that it was to be built with “kinim” (6:14), which is generally understood as a reference to separate compartments, or different levels. Rashi, for example, writes that each species of animal was to reside in a separate area of the ark, thus necessitating a large number of distinct compartments.
The Midrash (Bereishit Rabba, 31), however, sees in the word “kinim” an allusion to the pair of birds (“kein”) which was required as part of the purification process of a metzora. Somebody who was determined to have been stricken with a tzara’at skin discoloration would live outside his city until he underwent an involved process to regain his status of purity, a process which included a ritual involving two birds (Vayikra 14). By using the word “kinim,” the Midrash comments, God was alluding to Noach that the ark would serve as a means of purification for him, much as the pair of birds provided purification for a metzora. In the Midrash’s words, “Just as this pair of birds purifies the metzora, your ark will similarly purify you.”
How might we explain the association drawn by the Midrash between Noach’s “purification” and the purification process required of a metzora?
Numerous sources indicate that while Noach was a righteous man who courageously resisted the tide of corruption and violence that defined his generation, he failed by withdrawing from his contemporaries, rather than working to influence them. His experience in the ark, in a certain sense, metaphorically represents his life before the flood, when he lived in isolation from the people of his time, preferring to simply separate himself from the sinful society, instead of making an effort to improve it. Noach thus required “purification” from the sin of isolation and withdrawal, his having pulled away from his contemporaries rather than engaging in society and endeavoring to exert a positive influence.
Tzara’at is commonly understood as a punishment for a variety of interpersonal offenses, particularly, indulging in gossip and talebearing. The metzora is seen as a person who involves himself too intensely in people’s affairs, who makes a point of finding out what everybody is doing – especially what they do wrong – and then disseminating that information. The metzora is punished by being banished from society, as he has proven himself incapable of appropriate social engagement, of setting proper limits on the extent of his involvement in people’s lives.
In effect, then, Noach and the metzora represent polar opposite models of social conduct. Noach represents the model of withdrawal and isolation, whereas the metzora represents the model of overinvolvement and inappropriate meddling.
By associating Noach with the metzora, the Midrash perhaps seeks to draw our attention to the stark difference between them, and to thereby teach us of the delicate balance that must be maintained in our social involvement. We are to avoid both the model of Noach and the model of the metzora – the model of withdrawal and dissociation, and the model of prying and gossip. We must see ourselves as part of, and thus responsible for, our community and society, but within reasonable limits, respecting the privacy and dignity of other people. The Midrash teaches us to recognize the line between meaningful social engagement and invasion of privacy, to engage with other people without overstepping our bounds and intruding upon their personal affairs.