Wednesday, September 17, 2014 Elul 22, 5774

The Flood Waters Were Punishment and Purity

October 26, 2011 By:
Rabbi Joshua Runyan
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The party's over. Fresh from a seemingly endless array of holidays, beginning with Rosh Hashanah and concluding with Simchat Torah, we find ourselves back at work. Sustained by the spiritual heights reached during intense prayers and joyous celebrations, we must now encounter the physical realm, much like farmers who plant anew after enjoying the bounties of a harvest.

As time marches on, the stresses of everyday life can rain down like water, threatening to sweep us away in a flood of worry. But the Torah provides us new ways to look at things.
 
This week's portion begins by singling out Noah as "a righteous man" before going into the story of the famous flood that would wipe out all life on earth, save for a handful of people and those animals brought two by two into a massive ark.
 
Much later than the events recorded in these verses, the prophet Isaiah refers to the 40 days of rain as "the waters of Noah," a curious phrase given Noah's spiritual stature. Why would he want to attribute the near destruction of the world to a person who, according to Rashi, extended the construction of his giant ship for 120 years to maximize the amount of people who would see this curiosity, ask him about it and be moved to repent?
 
The Midrash points out that the name Noah and the Aramaic word for "serenity" share the same root. He brought serenity to the upper worlds, as evidenced by the Divine promise to never again wreak such havoc upon the earth; and, the Midrash continues, he brought serenity to the lower worlds.
 
How could this be possible? All of those who were alive before the flood, with the exception of Noah, his wife and children, died!
 
Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi notes that had the Almighty wished to punish the sinners, He could have done it without going to such extremes. Perhaps there was another purpose.
 
Many commentators see a correlation between the 40 days of rain and the 40 seah, a volume of measure, that define the minimum capacity of a mikvah. Just as the waters of a mikvah confer ritual purity, so too did the flood purify the world. Whereas prior to Noah, the defining hallmark of society was the pursuit of pleasure, his descendants would struggle with the challenge of deriving pleasure from the service of heaven. In such a light, the "waters of Noah," while they conferred punishment, can be appreciated for the positive effect they had on the world.
 
King Solomon writes in his Song of Songs that "vast floods cannot quench love, nor rivers drown it." So, too, all the troubles of this world cannot extinguish a soul's intense desire for the Divine.
 
The only question left is how to stay afloat. And for that we have the picture of Noah's ark. The ship was miraculous by its very nature: Animals of all species, of all sizes and temperaments, got along on just a few wooden decks. It benefitted from a supernatural glow from a precious stone Noah brought with him. And it withstood the torment of the roiling seas until finally coming to rest 150 days after the rains began.
 
The name for this vessel, whose cargo was an entire world, is teivah, a Hebrew term that also means "word." The Torah could have used one of several other words to connote "ship" or "boat," but instead, we read of the "word" preserving Noah and his family.
 
Today, we needn't look far for our own life rafts. No matter how difficult life gets, we can always retreat to the protection of the Divine words of Torah to derive the strength and inspiration to turn the challenges of today into the opportunities of tomorrow.
 
Rabbi Joshua Runyan, former news editor of the Jewish Exponent, is the editor of Chabad.org News. Email him at: jrunyan@ chabad.org.
 

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