The story of Noah’s ark is known to all, it is a popular design for children’s toys as well as the theme of many books and cartoons (two of the best that come to mind are Disney’s Silly Symphony version of the 1930s, and the Lois Lenski book, Mr. and Mrs. Noah).
The imagery of the boat full of animals, the dove with the olive branch, and the rainbow, are simply irresistible. The only problem with these festive bedspread patterns, however, is that, at the core, it represents a horrible story. Essentially, after roughly ten generations of mankind, Gd decides that his creation was a failure, and wipes everyone out, man, woman, and toddler, in a nasty flood, saving only one family, that of Noah, and a representative set of animals, to repopulate the devastated world. Aside from the technological difficulty the ark represents, there doesn’t seem much of a lesson to the story other than ‘be good or learn to swim’, which is far from the usual more sublime message offered in the Torah. No wonder, then, that the medieval Jewish thinkers had no problem labeling this episode a metaphor.
Is there any way, then, to rescue the passage? A frequent Hassidic approach is to read this episode as referring not to a historical catastrophe but to personal travail, and one of the more influential Hassidic meditations pertaining to personal prayer is derived from the text of this episode. The Baal Shem Tov is cited in multiple sources as reading the phrase ‘tzohar taaseh latevah’, which literally refers to Gd telling Noah to “put a window into the boat”, as actually containing a teaching on how to pray. By way of a midrashic reading, cited in Rashi, which states that the unusual word tzohar can mean either “a window” or a type of “light emitting jewel”, the Baal Shem Tov reads the verse as follows: tzohar, illumination, teasah latevah, shall you produce around the letters (tevah=ark but also means letters, as in letters of the alphabet). In other words, not only the meaning, but the actual letters, as you pray, should be visualized in luminescence. (An interesting parallel is found in a Tibetan meditation which details how to meditatively view illuminated letters.) There are many variations on this theme found in the Hassidic literature, and it is a beautiful one (and worthy of personal experimentation), but let us return to the inherent difficulty in reading (or accepting) the flood story as it is written.
Is there a way to relate to the Deluge as it is narrated, and derive some kind of meaningful message from it? I would like to focus on a remarkable set of teachings by R. Tzadok HaCohen of Lublin, made all the more interesting in that the core of the teaching apparently first presents itself to him as a dream, which he states appeared to him in Izbice, when at the court of the Mei Shiloach. This dream, he states, in the ‘dream notebook’ which is appended to his work Resisei Layla, he felt related to the essence of his soul. From this dream reading, which weaves together a series of Midrashic and Talmudic teachings related to the Noah story, emerge a series of interwoven teachings which deal with the problems of leadership, community and relationship of these to Gd, which become particularly pertinent for these troubled times. I will first translate the dream as it is narrated in the text:
A dream I had while in Izbice in which were revealed to me issues pertaining to the essence of my soul- among the things I was told was that the generation of the Messiah will be the very same souls of the generation that followed Moshe into the Wilderness (as Moshiach is the soul of Moshe Rabbeinu as it states in the Raaya Mehemna), and these are in fact the same souls of the generation of the flood (Moshe himself was also lost in the flood, as it states in the Zohar and in the Talmud Hulin 139: that Beshagam= Moshe numerically), but at that time the generation destroyed itself through the sin known as ‘the sin of youth’, as it is said of them, that Man’s inclination is evil from the days of his youth, but this was rectified by the generation of the exodus, their following Moshe into the wilderness being referred to as the goodness of their youth. The generation of Mashiach will be that suggested by the verse (Psalm 103:5) ‘they will be rejuvenated like the eagle’, meaning that they will be the same generation of the goodness of youth, that will be renewed again. This is what I remember [of that dream]’
Before we read any further, I’d like to borrow a distinction between two models of readings, from George Steiner’s Grammars of Creation. He distinguishes between the Biblical presentation of Creation and that of the Greek mythologies, labeling the first a ‘rhetoric’, with the approach of the Greeks being the ‘erotic’:
In the Hebraic perspective, creation is a rhetoric, a literal speech-act, ‘The making of being is a saying. The ruah Elohim, the breath or pneuma of the Creator speaks the world. He might have thought it in a single instant’ but He spoke creation, and because discourse is sequential in time, the making took six days ‘Why this insistence on the unison of divine creation and divine articulacy?’ The Judaic answer, today renewed in Levinas’s ethics, is profoundly suggestive. Speech demands a listener, and, if possible, a respondent.
On the other hand, continues Steiner:
If the Hebraic reading of creation is a rhetoric, that of ancient Greek cosmogonies is ‘an erotic’. Aetiology and process are, as in the psychoanalytic theory of the creative, libidinal. The etymology of Greek chaos is that of a ‘rent’, of a violent ‘tear’ as in a ‘cloth’.
In this reading, Gd in the Torah is perceived as being primarily concerned with a dialogical relationship with creation, whereby in mythology, the gods relate to creation in an ‘erotic’ or libidinal manner, whereby the gods want something and get it or destroy. Certainly there are a whole host of Greek myths whereby the gods descend to the mortal world looking for women, etc., and when not satisfied or when refused, the woman comes to an unusual end. This ‘rhetorical’ reading works for most of the Torah, but is problematic when applied to the Noach episode, which would seem much more in tune with the ‘erotic’ characterization of the divine, in that Gd suddenly decides mankind are no good and decides to wipe them out, all except His favorite.
The Talmud and Midrash were sensitive to this aberration, and attempts to restore a ‘rhetorical’ reading. The Mishna in Avot 5 states that there were ten generations from Adam to the flood, the number 10 always being significant. The Midrash (Shemot Rabba 30) suggests that this generation was so great that had they changed their ways they could have brought about the giving of the Torah. However, because of their great technological advancements (the Midrash states they only needed to plant grain once every 40 years), they became decadent, uncaring, with no regard for human relationships (thus, in various Midrashim this generation stands accused of aberrant relationships– on the sexual plane of onanism, and on the legal plane of devising means of stealing from one another without incurring legal indemnity).
Certainly the oddest midrashic teaching suggesting the high level of this generation, is the text found in the Talmud, Hulin 139: which asks– Where do we find reference to Moshe in the Torah? The answer given, is the verse ‘beshagum hu basar‘ (a text specifically referring to the sins of the generation of the deluge), with the word beshagum being numerically equivalent to the word Moshe! Now this text is puzzling on several fronts. For one thing, Moshe is a central character of the Torah, after all, he’s mentioned hundreds of times. So then, perhaps, the question is, where in the first book, Bereishit (Genesis), is there a reference to Moshe? The surprising answer, is that Moshe is found right there in the deluge narrative, right at the heart of the sin which brought about Gd’s wrath in the first place. In other words, explains R. Zadok, not only was the generation of the flood one ready to receive the Torah, but there was Moshe as well, among them!
Given the greatness in potentia of this generation, according to the Talmud, in Sanhedrin 108:, Gd attempted to dialogue with them, in order to turn them around and save them. The Talmud teaches that Gd, in order to move the people to repent, first changed the route of the sun, having it rise in the west and set in the east. When that failed, Gd altered time, and when that failed, we are told, Gd gave that generation ‘a taste of the world to come’. However, none of these spectacular alterations in creation moved the people; they were too decadent to be impressed. The Midrash states that Gd tried to instruct the people with four routes to salvation– Torah, redemptive suffering, sacrifices, and prayer, but, like the natural signs, these specifically dialogical moves on the part of Gd were unheeded by the people, and by their potential leader, someone who could have been a Moshe.
Returning to R. Zadok’s dream, we can now understand the impact the coming together of these teachings set off in his dream. R. Zadok understood that the generation of the Flood was the generation that left Egypt, and was the generation that would ultimately be that of final salvation– in other words, every generation could be that which transforms history in one direction or the other. What matters is the coalescence of the generation and its leadership. In the generation of the flood, neither the people nor its leadership were able to transcend their corrupt nature, while in the generation of the Exodus, the people were not ready, but their leader, Moshe, was. In the generation of the Messiah, in other words, in that generation which brings about universal social justice, both the leadership and the people will have reached their transformative potential, together.
What will bring about this kind of utopian societal situation? The Mishna in Avot, cited earlier, continues that there were ten generations more after Noah until Abraham, and when Abraham appeared, ‘he reaped the reward of all the previous generations’. Why was Abraham able to retroactively change history? Because Abraham is the representation of chesed, mercy, of positive human interaction. He saw Gd in the world around, and rather than isolate himself in a “religious” monastic search for meaning, he brought the message into society by creating a guesthouse, as we will see in subsequent texts. If the failure of the generation of the deluge was that of self absorption, as symbolized by the archetypical designator for self-love, onanism, as well as complete disregard for other’s property (as in the Midrashic story of theft and deceit accomplished by means which could not be prosecuted by law), Abraham, and later Moshe, symbolize responsibility for the Other, even at great personal risk. R. Zadok suggests that the period of slavery preceeding the next stage in human development (in the above cited teaching) was a necessary transition phase between a world destroying generation and a world transforming society, perhaps because the experience of suffering and exploitation of the liberated slave people would never allow a societal relapse back into the ‘erotic’ reading of the world, of decadence and self absorption. One might suggest that this movement from the ‘erotic’ to the ‘rhetorical’ is implicitly suggested by the text even in Gd, who renounces world destruction in speaking to Noach after the flood.
The editors of the Midrash Bereishit Rabba, were unsure of what the Talmudic teaching regarding Moshe’s presence in the flood verses might mean, and there they add that it was a recognition of the possibility of a potential Moshe who might impact in a redemptive manner upon society that led Gd to save some vestige of humankind. Perhaps both readings are complementary; we should despair of the human possibility wasted in our generations of meaningless loss of life, while holding on to the suggestion that even among the rubble may sprout a new message leading us out of this sorry condition; we might say that not only in every generation is there a potential Moshe, a potential spark of Messianic world transformation, but within each and every one of us.