Lessons on Surviving the Deluge (Parashat Noach)
Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu laasok b’divrei Torah.
Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of all, who hallows us with mitzvot, commanding us to engage with words of Torah.
I can still remember the rain that fell right at the start of the pandemic lockdowns. I’d made the decision long before then to cut out cable and internet news from my life, so the shellshocked look in the eyes of the venue owners I visited that day felt out of place. In my mind, I was just pushing my classes out by two weeks. It was a simple enough correction to make on the flyers themselves. After that, everything would be back to normal.
Already though, clients and colleagues alike were frantically scrambling for new forms of work. People (myself included) were suddenly remembering our passions for photography, for writing, and for anything else that could be made at home and sold online. Maybe this would be an exciting opportunity to reconnect with a truer part of ourselves, I mused.
The gravity of what was happening didn’t really hit me until a coaching client, a schoolteacher, asked me pointblank if she should take another job while the schools were shutdown. Normally, questions like that aren’t in my job description. I help people explore hows and whys. I don’t deal in shoulds. But in that moment, the only question I could think of–what happens if the school system takes longer than two weeks to get back up and running?–led us both to a glimpse of the reality that was coming, and the only answers we should be considering while we still had time to adapt.
Sheltering in the Ark
In this week’s Torah portion, Noah is instructed by G-d to build an ark which will shelter his family and pairs of every animal species from a devastating flood that will destroy everyone else. Flood myths like this story, or, more accurately, myths about chosen heroes surviving the deluge, can be found around the world. In India for instance, Matsya (an incarnation of Vishnu) warns Manu about an impending flood, and commands him to gather the grains and sages of the world in an ark for safety. Mesopotamian cultures likewise produced flood myths in which heroes like Atra-Hasis and Utnapishtim are warned by divine forces and tasked with preserving life from divine punishment in the form of a catastrophic flood.
While anthropologists and other scientists continue to debate the possibility of a literal flood informing all of these stories, we can take from the Torah here some fascinating insight into the nature of human resilience, essentially how to go about surviving the deluge.
The operative word to our survival, teva (the ark), is one that rabbis and Kabbalists have been exploring for centuries now. Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, for instance, expanded the dual meaning of teva as both an “ark” and a “word.” In his commentary, Kedushat Levi, the rabbi explains that the dimensions given for the ark, represented by the Hebrew letters lamed (30), shin (300), and nun (50), spell out the root of the Hebrew word lashon (tongue, or language). The height alludes to G-d’s position in creation, the width to the mutual love between G-d and creation, and the length to the journey of awareness that clarifies these relationships.
The same dimensions of the ark can be located by multiplying the values of the letters in the secret name of G-d. Hey (ה) by Vav (ו), or, 5 x 6 = 30, the height of the ark. Hey (ה) by Yud (י), or, 10 x 5 = 50, the width of the ark. And Yud, Hey, and Vav (י-ה-ו), or, 10 x 5 x 6 = 300, the length of the ark. (This particular teaching may originate with Ha’ARI Hakadosh, R. Isaac Luria, but has since become relatively diffused among many different rabbis).
R. Yitzchak Meir likewise is said to have proclaimed that “The ark of Noah is the words and letters of Torah!” In essence, we take refuge in the Torah. Surviving the deluge is a matter of entering into alignment with this testament to the perfection of G-d, who in turn is all around us, embracing and sanctifying all that we go through. In his text, Yalkut Reuveni, Rabbi Reuben ben Hoshke of Prague connects Noah entering the ark to the message of Proverbs 18:10: “The name of G-d is a fortified tower; the righteous run to it and are safe.” The sum of all these teachings then may help to clarify why the story of the Tower of Babel is also included in the Torah portion concerning Noah. The very dimensions of the ark carry the name of G-d, while man constructs the Tower of Babel to make a name for himself.
One last word I want to pull from teva here is “nature,” both in the sense of creation as a whole, but also in the sense of our essence as individuals within it. Nature is a testament to G-d. Here I am reminded of the quote attributed to Meister Eckhart, “Every creature is a word of G-d.” And it is in our nature to both succeed and fail at living in harmony with that truth. On a metaphysical level we are at times both Noah, weathering the nature of this world from within the ark, and at other times, we are the people who slip beneath the waves and drown or attempt to reach the heavens by our own name alone.
Though the outside world may take the story of Noah at face value as a historical reality to be proven or disproven, the metaphysical layer to the text challenges us to recall the power of language both in the act of creation and also in our resilience through its obstacles.
Surviving the Deluge
Nothing could have prepared me for all that I lost during the pandemic shutdown. And I know that I am not alone in that sense. So many of us were caught off-guard, and frustratingly found ourselves on the wrong side of often arbitrary regulations and processes that very plainly benefitted certain managerial industries and the kind of large corporations with enough savings and infrastructure to afford an unending shutdown of in-person contact.
Truth be told, I still at times feel anger about that. Resentment. And of course fear. It’s the fear that comes from being powerless in the face of destruction. Something I share with many of the folks I have been coaching since then is a recognition that we have spent more than a year now caught in a system which will very easily pull you under.
When it does, and when you look around and realize that you have very little power over determining when or how you will be able to return to work in order to support yourself, we, like Noah, find ourselves tasked with surviving the deluge. There’s this proverb I’ve heard attributed to numerous sources, essentially it teaches that a suicidal man will still fight to keep himself from drowning. What it means is that our impulse to live is incredibly strong, even in the darkest of times. If you take away a man’s means to support himself and his family, he may hurt deeply and for a very long time. But what you don’t crush is his soul. Because in that time that he is surviving the deluge, he is finding that the only power he–and he alone–has control over is his own mindset, his own attitude, and the choices he will make each day.
This is the very power of the soul.
The story of Noah is not about surviving the deluge in a birds nest of gopher wood sealed with pitch. Neither is it about the rage of G-d or mass destruction. It’s not about floods, or even historical documentation of a catastrophic event. It’s about how to survive the harsh, unforgiving, and truly unfair conditions of life we will all go through at some point or another. It’s about surviving the feeling of your whole world washing away, and having no one else to blame but an invisible force you must be too lowly to even comprehend.
This portion of the Torah gives us a blueprint for survival spelled out in the curious metaphysics of Hebrew words and their mystical associations. Take refuge in Torah. Shelter yourself in the ark of G-d’s name. Whether you believe in G-d or not, put some higher power above yourself, because if you depend solely on your own greatness, eventually you’ll crumble beneath the weight of your own insignificance.
Surviving the deluge is a matter of language and words. Yes, G-d provides the direction and the structure, but we must choose to enter the ark. When all else is lost, mind the words you speak first to yourself. From the language of your mindset, your internal world is formed. The words we speak to ourselves can shelter and protect our soul where no other influence can reach. That language we build around our life can either be a great vessel that stays above the water, or a wobbling tower that leaves us scatter-brained and stranded beyond comprehension.