When I imagine the Torahportion of Noach, I picture something out of a Steven Spielberg adventure film, replete with special effects and an innocent protagonist who finds himself in extraordinarily wondrous and trying circumstances that transform his childlike wonder into an inner struggle for conquest and fulfillment.
Actually, from a chassidic perspective at least, this isn’t so far off.
This Torah portion famously relates how G‑d resolves to wipe out the entire earth, which since the generation ofAdam and Eve had spiraled into a society of pervasive corruption: “And G‑d said to Noah: The end of all flesh has come before me, for the earth is filled with violence; behold, I shall destroy them.” (Genesis 6:13)
As we all know, G‑d tells Noah—the only righteous man of his generation—to build an ark as a safe haven for him, his family, and two of each animal (seven of each kosher animal). And then, for forty days, the world is flooded with unrelenting waters, destroying all breathing life.
Since we all know the story so well, it’s easy at first glance not to realize how utterly bizarre it is. Not to mention disturbing. First, doesn’t destroying the entire world due to the corruption of its individuals seem a bit . . . over the top? And second of all, if G‑d is all-powerful, why couldn’t He just—Boom!—strike down all of these violent, base, degenerate human beings roaming the planet, sparing Noah and the rest of the ark-niks? It would have been a much simpler, much cleaner solution. There wouldn’t be a need for Noah to spend 120 tedious years building an ark. We could sidestep the sewage problems. At the very least, it would save a rainforest or two.
There are so many ways to wipe out a civilization. Did G‑d really choose to flood the world just for the dramatic effect?
According to Jewish mysticism, by bringing the flood, G‑d was dunking the world into a giant mikveh (ritual bath). The forty days of the flood hint to the forty se’ah-measures of water required for a mikveh to be kosher according to Jewish law. The flood, then, was not a punishment, but a purification process that the world needed to undergo in order to be cleansed and reborn. Welcome to World 2.0. In this new reality, the knowledge of G‑dliness not only affected, but actually saturated (pun intended) the earth and every being upon it. Spirituality became so entrenched, so deeply rooted in the essence of existence that every human being could now access it within themselves. It became an awareness that penetrated and ingrained and was expressed in the very fibers of the universe.
But the message of the flood goes even deeper. The flood represents all of our issues—namely, the ones that plague us from without. The demands that incessantly crash like waves around us, thrusting us into an insular, inflexible mindset in which there is time only for doing and none for being, in which we must constantly strive and compete to make something of ourselves (e.g., “I must get good grades, so I can go to a good college, so I can to get a good job, in order to make lots of money, so I can to go on vacation—and spend more time thinking about how my worth is directly proportional to how high I stand on the corporate ladder, or the numbers of zeroes on my bank statements”).
The flood is all those things that threaten to smother the G‑dly spark that lies within us, which is crying and yearning to express itself, but feels it’s being drowned by the overwhelming anxieties and pressures of life.
But the beautiful thing is that we have an ark. A part of us that is pure, unaffected by the painful anxieties of the material world, a part of us whose relationship with G‑d is natural and deep, whose essence is uncontaminated by the flood of physical and material concerns. And no matter how ferociously the storm of problems and worries thrashes upon us, that part of us remains unaffected, in a tranquil state of oneness with G‑d. (In fact, the name “Noach” shares a root with the word nechamah, “comfort.”) In the expressive words of Song of Songs (8:7), “Many waters cannot extinguish the love, nor can rivers flood it . . .”
And yet, despite its violent and threatening nature, the flood is not just an enemy to be overcome or obliterated. It’s the very vehicle that pushes and elevates the ark to greater heights. A foundational axiom of Judaism is that our material world is not the enemy of spirituality. In fact, the opposite is true. They are made for each other, like hand and glove. It is one of those ironic paradoxes of life: only when one is immersed in the material world, and forced to wrestle with it, can one’s relationship with G‑d become something potent and real.
When we struggle and overcome anxieties that threaten to drown us in a life void of meaning and purpose, when we fight our obsessive and selfish pursuits of materiality and superficial quests for self-worth—these challenges bring out the best in us. They allow us to feel the anguishing pain of distance from our true selves, the part of us that is totally in sync with G‑d. They empower us with new resolve to redirect our lives toward a higher meaning and purpose.
Do not allow the floods to drown you into oblivion. First, find solace inside the ark. Then grab hold of the helm.
The above is based on a chassidic discourse of the Alter Rebbe, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (Torah Ohr, Noach,Maamar Mayim Rabbim).