WATER, WATER EVERYWHERE
Rabbi David Walk
What natural disaster is the most terrifying? Tornadoes are pretty bad. From The Wizard of Oz to Twister, movies have shown horrifying scenes of tornado bred devastation. But, personally, I'd put my money on asteroids. They're scary! One of them wiped out the dinosaurs, and theoretically another could do the same to us. In the pantheon of potential disasters, volcanoes, earthquakes, hurricanes, none could end life as we know it like a big rock from space. Now that I've provided you all with the seeds of nightmares, allow me to say that to ancient humanity floods were the scariest. According to an article by Dr Moshe Kaveh, President of Bar Ilan University and distinguished professor of physics (and source for many of the facts in this article) two hundred and seventeen cultures around the world have flood stories. I didn't know that there were so many civilizations in the world. And we're one of them.
There's a tremendous amount of research about our Bible's Flood story. It seems that the History Channel alone has at least one documentary on the topic every week. There are expeditions to find the remains of the ark. There are theories about the amount and source of the water required to do the job. Many 'experts' calculate the date of the event. And, of course, there are many attempts to figure out the extent of the flood. Flood study is an obsession with many that call themselves Bible scholars. For me the only interesting question is concerning the parameters of the flood. A flood that truly covered the whole world is really a bit much to take in. However, there are opinions, beginning with our Sages that the flood was limited in scope. Some say that Eretz Yisrael was exempt; others say that only
Frankly, that kind of speculation ultimately doesn't interest me. The Bible is neither history book nor geological guide. However, I'm interested in speculation about why water was chosen as the vehicle for God's wrath. There could have been many methods of punishing that generation of sinners from fire to plague, so, why water? It could be that flooding was the scariest natural disaster to people in the ancient
The Kli Yakar (Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim Lunzitsch, 1550-1619) reminds us that idolatry, perhaps the worst possible sin, is compared to a fruitless search for water by the prophet Jeremiah: They have abandoned Me, the fountain of living water. And they have dug for themselves cracked cisterns that can hold no water at all (2:13). In the Zohar the expression that God brought a flood of water on the world is followed by the comment that this is a form of avodah or a reference to Divine service to God. This makes sense because we spend a lot of our prayer verbiage discussing water and rain.
Maybe the irony is even greater. Often we use water as a metaphor for Torah. Our sages have said there is no water (or life giving elixir) other than Torah (Talmud Ta'anit 7b). So, a world that doesn't heed God's instructions is inundated with the symbol of God's teachings. Water is also the vehicle for purification in our tradition. Maybe the earth's spiritual pollution was so great that the whole world became a mikveh to purify everything.
But perhaps the reference to water is based on a different scientific reality. We are mostly water. Adult humans are about sixty percent water; children are even more. Babies are seventy-eight percent water. Some living organisms are as much as ninety percent water. More than any other substance water reminds us that we are one with our world. Therefore the essence of our sin was against the natural order of things. We didn't offend God; we offended our planet. Rabbi Joseph D. Soloveitchik, in his book The Emergence of Ethics, explains that the stories at the beginning of Genesis, especially the Creation chapters, are to teach us that we are an integral part of this world. Bible scholarship and Greek philosophy (as presented by the early Christian Church) were wrong to view humanity as separate and aloof from our environment and its impulses. Judaism demands that we see ourselves in a natural context.
When we look at these stories at the beginning of Genesis we are presented with many questions. I think that these questions shouldn't be about the accuracy or technical details of these tails. Rather we must ask: What can I learn from these accounts? How can my life be made better through understanding these narratives? And, finally, what can I do to improve this wonderful world presented to us by a loving God? It's about time we concentrated on the big picture these Biblical chapters really describe.