THIS WEEK’S Torah portion, Noach, relates one of the best-known incidents in history: the story of Noach (Noah) and the flood. In addition to the simple meaning of the narrative, this story can also be interpreted as a mystical allegory conveying a powerful message of hope and encouragement for those whose struggle to earn a livelihood threatens to interfere with their spiritual pursuits.
It is written (Song of Songs 8:7), “Many waters would not be able to quench love, and rivers would not drown it; should a person give all the wealth of his house for love, it would be utterly scorned.” The phrase “many waters” is a reference to the Waters of Noah (mei Noach in Hebrew), and the unquenchable love is the innate love of a Jewish soul for G-d – of which love the preceding verse (Song of Songs 8:6) said, “Its coals are coals of fire, a mighty flame.” For, like a flame, the very nature of a Jewish soul is to constantly reach upwards, leaping and bounding in its yearning to break loose from its physical moorings and reunite with its Heavenly Source. Interpreted in this manner, the verse is telling us that even all the waters of the Great Deluge would be incapable of extinguishing the flame of a Jew’s natural love for G-d.
This is more than flowery language, however. For the “many waters” of the Flood symbolize all one’s struggles to earn a livelihood and preoccupation with worldly concerns. These can indeed seem overwhelming, and, as anyone who works for a living knows all too well, can sometimes make a person feel they are “drowning” (G-d forbid). In particular, there is the danger that preoccupation with one’s livelihood may cause one to lose sight of what is truly important: sincere worship of G-d and the effort to attach oneself to Him.
Yet the soul originated in Heaven, as it were, where, unburdened by the distractions of this physical world, it basked pleasurably in the radiance of the Divine Presence and was in fact utterly united with the Infinite One Himself. In light of this, one may wonder why the soul had to be born into this sorry realm at all: would it not have been better off to remain where it was? The answer, however, is that, just as a person sometimes reveals latent strengths when confronted with adversity, G-d saw fit to send the soul into this material world so that, by overcoming the challenges posed here, it would develop spiritually to a far greater extent than would have been possible otherwise. Against this background, the verse in Song of Songs reassures us that we have a real “fighting chance”: even the seemingly overwhelming floodwaters of this world and its material concerns cannot extinguish the fiery love of G-d that a Jewish soul possessed before being plunged into this existence. On the contrary, through the crucible of worldly life, the soul achieves an even higher level of spirituality, as will be explained below.
The “many waters” of the flood are called “the Waters of Noah,” not merely because Noah was the protagonist of the Flood narrative, but because of the connotation of the phrase. The Hebrew word for Noah, Noach, denotes the satisfying type of rest one experiences after ceasing one’s labour and is cognate to the Hebrew word Shabbos, which means the same thing. In fact, the Targum Onkelos (the classic Aramaic translation of the Torah) renders the phrase (Genesis 2:2), “and He [G-d] rested on the seventh day” as v’nach b’yoma sh’viaa, using the Aramaic equivalent of noach for the Hebrew root shabbos. In a spiritual sense, the Waters of Noah brought about this type of satisfaction.
The reason for this will be understood in light of the fact that the Great Flood was not merely an instrument for the destruction of the world’s sinners. If that were all G-d meant to do, why go to such extremes? Almighty G-d could have obliterated them without a trace in the proverbial blink of an eye – even without a worldwide flood. The explanation is that, although G-d did wish to annihilate the sinners who had overrun the earth, he chose floodwaters, in particular, as the means to this end for another reason:
Water possesses the ability to spiritually purify. The corruption of that generation had defiled the very earth, as we are told (Genesis 6:13), “for the earth is filled with violence,” and that, therefore, G-d would destroy part of the earth itself (see Rashi and other commentaries). While eliminating those who had defiled it, G-d also wished to purify the world. He, therefore, chose water, which has the ability to accomplish this, as it is written (Ezekiel 36:25) “And I [G-d] will sprinkle upon you pure waters and you will be purified; from all your defilements and from all your idols I will purify you.” In this sense, the floodwaters were similar to a spiritually purifying mikvah (ritual bath) – according to Jewish law, a proper mikvah must contain 40 seah (a unit of volume) of water, and this is the symbolic reason why the rains of the flood fell for 40 days and 40 nights.
The expression “Waters of Noah” with its connotation of spiritual satisfaction thus refers, not to destruction, but to this purification and renewal of the earth.
Now, the burden of earning one’s livelihood may also be referred to as the Waters of Noah. We are not entirely free agents so long as we need to work for our bread. Many people – possibly most – would use their time otherwise (to engage in Torah study, for example, or to spend time with their families) if they were only “free” to do so; for this reason, the necessity of labour may be described as a form of servitude. Servitude, like water, possesses the quality of purifying; indeed, our sages teach that our patriarch Abraham, when given the choice by G-d, chose servitude over Gehinom (purgatory – whose function, as the word implies, is to purge the soul of sin) as a means of achieving spiritual purity for his descendants. As we shall soon see, it was actually part of G-d’s plan that the soul, once born into this material life, undergo this purifying “economic servitude,” thereby enabling it to reach a level of spirituality previously unattainable.
(Note that this “economic servitude” does not refer to subservience, the requirement of paying taxes to a governmental authority. Even in King Solomon’s time – the height of Jewish autonomy and prosperity – we paid taxes. However, in King Solomon’s day, the land was blessed by G-d and “flowed with milk and honey,” yielding supernatural bounty, so that, taxes or not, there was no need to worry about one’s livelihood. By contrast, in present times we do indeed toil and burden over our livelihood: “it doesn’t come easy,” as the popular saying goes. It is this condition that is the purifying element of earning a livelihood; the “many waters” that nevertheless cannot quench the soul’s yearning for G-d; the “Waters of Noah” with its connotation of spiritual satisfaction. This is because by means of these many waters, a person can rise to achieve a higher spiritual level than would otherwise have been possible.)
The reason for this will be understood after considering the state of the soul before being born into this world. Our sages teach that at that point, the soul was close to G-d and (as the expression is used in the Talmud (Brochos 17a) with reference to the World to Come) “enjoyed the radiance of the Divine Presence.” As with all teachings of our sages, these words were chosen carefully: it was only the “radiance” of the Divine Presence which the soul enjoyed; it was not able to commune with the Divine Presence itself. Sunlight, for example, is an extension of the sun, and thus provides warmth, illumination, and many other benefits, yet it cannot be mistaken for the sun itself. The “radiance” metaphor is intended to convey the same idea: the soul in heaven experienced certain revelations of G-dliness, and indeed, derived great pleasure from this spiritual bounty, but was not able to unite with G-d Himself.
However, a person of this world, who works all day at earning a living and is beset by the worry and preoccupation attendant upon that struggle, can reach a loftier level. The prayers which we Jews recite three times a day were, as is well known, composed in their present form by the sages of the Great Assembly, who were Divinely inspired to formulate the prayers to arouse love and fear of G-d in every worshipper. When a person, thoroughly immersed in worldly, material, concerns, sits down to pray, they should reflect at length during the course of prayer on the manner in which G-d constantly renews the totality of Creation from absolute nothingness. (This requires, of course, that the person do it right: not merely reading through the text by rote, but actually thinking about what one is saying!)
Specifically, as our sages teach (See Midrash, Bereishis Rabbah, 10:6; Zohar I:251a; Moreh Nevuchim II, ch. 10; Iggeres HaKodesh end of section 20) not even a single blade of grass grows in this physical world without being individually directed to do so by a spiritual force known as its mazal. As a matter of fact, as we are about to see, there is a whole hierarchy of spiritual forces channelling G-d’s creative force into the world. This is necessary, to put it simply, because it is not feasible for a blade of grass, for example, to receive its spiritual “nourishment,” the Divine life-force that brings it into being, directly from G-d Himself. G-d is too “great,” as it were, and a blade of grass too small and insignificant, to permit this. A king implements his will by making his wishes known to the proper cabinet ministers. These people themselves are powerful officials with broad responsibilities, and they in turn pass on instructions to subordinates with more direct, hands-on contact with the matter in question. Possibly, these too transmit even more detailed instructions to lower level workers, and so on until, for example, the king’s desire that his glory and splendour be reflected in the appearance of the kingdom results in a particular gardener watering a particular blade of grass in some far-flung province.
That blade of grass is not the gardener’s personal project; it has a place – however small – in the king’s overall plan. The blade of grass does not owe its sustenance to the gardener, nor even to the succeedingly higher levels of officials who translated the king’s will into detailed instructions, but to the king himself. And even so, who is to say what motivated the king to issue his command to beautify the realm? Unless we know the king personally, we cannot know whether he appreciates fine landscaping; wishes to improve the economy through this public works project or is simply trying to please the queen. Knowing the king personally is what is truly worthwhile, but the lowly blade of grass has no connection with that, notwithstanding its receipt of sustenance by the king’s command.
A working person, more than anyone else, has the opportunity to direct their thoughts along these lines at prayer. Whatever their particular occupation, they know so well what effort and what worry and what preoccupation go into eking out their sustenance from it. (This is so whether that sustenance is meagre or bountiful, whether they are poor or rich. The effort, the worry and the preoccupation may not be about whether one will have food at the end of the day; the rich person does not worry about that. Nevertheless, even the rich are prone to complete preoccupation with business matters.) Such a person should reflect during prayer on how even an individual blade of grass (let alone himself or herself) receives its sustenance at the express direction of its spiritual mazal, and how these mazalos [plural of mazal in Hebrew] in turn receive their allotment of spiritual life-force [all as explained in philosophical and kabbalistic literature] from a spiritual level known as the seventy sarim, and the sarim from the “sediments of the ofanim,” which receive from the angels, and so on, higher and higher until ultimately they all receive from G-d’s blessed attribute of sovereignty, as it says (Psalms 145:13), “Your sovereignty is a sovereignty over all realms.” It is G-d’s sovereignty (Malchus in Hebrew) which brings all realms – from the highest spiritual levels to this physical world – into being out of true nothingness; yet, for all that, even G-d’s attribute of Malchus is nothing but the “radiance” of the Divine Presence: it is only the command of the King and not the King “personally” (so to speak); it is a mere “beam” or expression of G-dliness, and not G-d’s very essence and being, which is literally infinite (Ein Sof in Hebrew) and completely transcends creation of the universe. In a simple sense, none of the spiritual life force that flows into the universe – certainly none of the sustenance that any given working person receives – has any connection whatever with G-d’s very Essence, so to speak, which encompasses past, present and future as one, and is unaffected by whether the entire universe was even created or not – as we indeed recite (in the morning prayers; see also Yalkut Shimoni 836 citing the Jerusalem Talmud), “You [G-d] were [the same] before the world was created; You are [the same] after the world was created.”
After reflecting on all the above with deep concentration, one’s soul will be aroused with a quality of love and yearning for G-d Himself, a love and yearning that burns like glowing coals with desire to leave the darkness and concealment of this physical world – which prevents the soul from attaching itself to G-d’s very Essence, from “knowing the King personally,” as it were – and to cleave to none other than G-d Himself. This is the attitude expressed by the verse (Psalms 73:25), “Whom do I have in the Heavens [other than You, O G-d], and other than You I do not desire [anything] on earth.” The Hebrew word used for “other than You” literally means “with You”; the verse can thus be read, “Whom do I have in the Heavens? I do not desire anything that is ‘with You,’ etc.” That is, the speaker is so enraptured with love of G-d and G-d alone that he is rejecting anything, no matter how spiritually sublime, that is not G-d’s very Self: “Whom do I have in the Heavens,” i.e., I do not recognize any spiritual level, not the “radiance of the Divine Presence,” nor G-d’s attribute of Malchus (which is the “word” of the King, but not the King Himself); “anything that is merely ‘with You,’ i.e., not actually You Personally (so to speak), I do not desire.” The person’s whole desire is to be attached to G-d Himself, to literally dissolve into G-d’s very Essence and Being (even though this would entail the person’s ceasing to exist as an independent entity). This concept is referred to in the Zohar as “to be absorbed into the Body of the King.”
This level of love for G-d is termed t’shuva (usually translated “repentance,” but literally meaning “return”). This is because, by definition, it stems from contact with that which is far from G-d and carries a resulting extra potency, an urgency caused by the realization (upon contemplation as discussed above) of how great G-d is and how far one has gotten from Him. This results in the overwhelming need to run from that condition at the top of one’s speed, utterly abandoning anything mundane or unholy, and return to a state of absolute union with G-d Himself.
This kind of love is what is meant by the term “with all your might,” as in the verse (Deuteronomy 6:5), which we say every day in the Shema prayer, “And you shall love G-d, your G-d, with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” It literally knows no bounds.
The paradoxical fact that G-d’s greatness is thus most appreciated by contrast with immersion in material and mundane matters may be compared to light, which is best appreciated out of darkness. To be sure, light is light and does not change when it is surrounded by darkness. Nevertheless, a flashlight beam looks relatively unremarkable (if discernible at all) in daylight, but appears to shine forth like a diamond on black velvet by night. Similarly, for reasons of His own, G-d created the universe in this way: His “light,” as it were, is most apparent out of “darkness” – i.e., by contrast with what is not G-dly and holy.
We are now better equipped to understand what was said above, namely, that G-d saw fit to send the soul away from its prior, spiritual, existence and into this material world so that it would develop spiritually to a far greater extent than would have been possible otherwise. Basking in the spiritual delights of Heaven would not do it: it is only by exposure to non-holy things and the mundane existence of this physical world generally, and, more specifically, by confrontation with one’s own material impulses, with one’s “animal soul,” that one can achieve the boundless level of loving G-d “with all one’s might.”
As explained elsewhere (see, e.g., the synopsis of the discourse, “Ki Sih’yena L’Ish Sh’tei Nashim”), a Jew has two souls: the “G-dly soul” (nefesh haElokis in Hebrew) is the source of a person’s holy and spiritual tendencies, while the “animal soul” (nefesh habahamis) is what animates the physical body and craves worldly pleasures. The “darkness” out of which the “light” must shine refers to the animal soul and worldly concerns being the impetus for the G-dly soul to rise ever higher, as discussed above. Even more: not only must the animal soul provide a stark contrast from which the G-dly soul is motivated to flee, but the animal soul itself should come under the sway of the G-dly soul, should be “trained” to utilize its natural tendency to crave things to desire not material pursuits but holy ones.
The reason the animal soul and its subjugation is a necessary prerequisite to the G-dly soul’s achieving its true potential is that the animal soul is inherently stronger than the G-dly soul because its spiritual source stems from a higher level. The animal soul’s spiritual origins are alluded to by the verse (Genesis 36:31), “These are the kings that reigned in the land of Edom before there reigned a king over the Children of Israel.” This is a reference to the spiritual state known as olam hatohu, the “Realm of Chaos,” the state of affairs before G-d brought about the present order, known as olam hatikun, the “Realm of Rectification.” (As explained elsewhere in connection with the kabbalistic concept of sh’viras hakeilim, the “breaking of the vessels,” the entities (“vessels”) of olam hatohu were unable to remain intact and “broke,” plunging them into what we now call olam hatikun. The higher they were in olam hatohu the lower they fell into olam hatikun.) The animal soul was of this lofty primordial order, and its “fall” is hinted at in the subsequent verses (Genesis 36:32-39), which state that after each king reigned, he died. However, at its root, the animal soul is superior to the G-dly soul (as indicated by the statement that these kings reigned “before there reigned a king over the Children of Israel,” a reference to the G-dly soul).
That is the reason why, even in their earthly form, the animal soul and worldly concerns have the ability to overwhelm a person (G-d forbid), and also the explanation for the paradoxical fact that man needs animals and foods to live, while they do not need man to live. Their spiritual source is higher, rooted, like the animal soul’s, in olam hatohu. These powerful spiritual capabilities must, therefore, be harnessed by the G-dly soul, which can, through them, be catapulted to the rarified heights of t’shuva discussed above
Moreover, when a person is immersed in the overwhelming floodwaters of worldly concerns and the struggle to earn a livelihood, and that very immersion causes him or her to love G-d to the extent described as “with all your might,” as discussed earlier, then not only is the G-dly soul elevated by this achievement, but also the animal soul itself is raised up with it. In contrast with the “fall” of the animal soul alluded to by the verses “and he reigned…and he died,” this restoration of the animal soul, through breaking its desire for materialism and substituting a desire for spirituality, is akin to “resurrection of the dead.”
The advantage gained from successfully grappling with the temptations of this physical world accounts for the saying of our sages (Mishna, Avos 4:17), that “One moment of t’shuva and good deeds in this world is superior to the entire life of the World to Come.” (In the World to Come, of course, there is no grappling with an elevation of material things.)
We can now also appreciate why the “many waters” of the verse “Many waters would not be able to quench love…,” which waters symbolize the potentially overwhelming flood of economic concerns, are called the “waters of Noach,” with its connotation of spiritual satisfaction, or “naycha d’rucha.” When one spiritually “stays afloat,” as it were, refusing to “sink” and instead rising above one’s worldly and economic challenges; when those very challenges stimulate one to an insatiable longing for nothing but G-d Himself; then those very floodwaters of material struggle are what raise one up and carry him or her to the very highest level. This is similar to the way a ship – an ark – floats always above the surface of the waters, no matter how deep, and is borne by the waters to the heights of their ascent.
All the above is beautifully expressed in the fact that the Hebrew word for “ark,” teiva, is the same as that meaning “word.” As explained above, it is concentration on the words of prayer, and internalization of their message that all one’s sustenance is channelled through various spiritual “intermediaries” but is utterly insignificant next to G-d Himself, that brings one to rise above the overwhelming floodwaters of economic concerns and “come out on top.” This is why, on the threshold of inundating the world with the mighty flood, G-d advised Noah (Genesis 7:1), “You and all your household should come into the ark [teiva].” This was symbolic of more abstract advice: in the face of the flood of concerns over one’s livelihood, one should get into one’s teiva, the words of prayer, which have the ability to keep one afloat, and even more – to raise one up above the rising waters.
This is of great comfort to those who work for a living. Such people frequently make the error of supposing that their prayers cannot reach the same level of spiritual purity as those of scholars and Rabbis who spend their days in spiritual pursuits. However, the contrary is true: it is precisely the prayers of the working man (or working woman, although the word is far less satisfying in this context) that constitute that light which shines forth from darkness for which G-d created the world!
And that is why the word noach is related to the word Shabbos, both of which bear that connotation of satisfying rest from one’s labour. The fact that the spiritual satisfaction we have been discussing in the context of noach is the same as that which obtains on Shabbos (Sabbath) is indicated by the verse (Genesis 2:3), “…for on it [the seventh day] He rested [shovas] from all His labour.” The elevation which comes through worship within the context of labour results in the spiritual satisfaction of Shabbos.
Indeed, the prayers of each day of the week are in a sense reflections of the level of prayer on Shabbos.
Now, the time after Moshiach’s (Messiah’s) arrival is known as “a time which is eternally Shabbos.” There is a level of love for G-d which surpasses even the level, achieved through prayer, of “with all your might” discussed above. This level of love is referred to by the verse (Shir haShirim 2:6), “and His right [hand] embraces me.” At that time, it will no longer be necessary to struggle with earning a livelihood to achieve this love of G-d, and that is what is meant by the verse, “…which I [G-d] have sworn not to bring the Waters of Noah again over the land.”