Watch: A short lesson by Reb Yoel Kahn on Parshas Noach with an English transcript.
Watch a short lesson by Reb Yoel Kahn on Parshas Noach with an English transcript.
Scroll down for the English transcript.
There’s a fascinating Midrash that sheds light on the mabul, the theme of Parshas Noach:
“A parable can be given of a king who built a palace and brought mute people to dwell in it. The mutes praised the king by hinting with their fingers. The king thought: ‘If this is the case with mute people, all the more so with people who can speak!’ So he replaced them with speaking people. However, instead of praising him, they said, ‘The palace is ours!’ ‘If so,’ said the king, ‘let the mutes return to their place.’
“Similarly, when the world was first created, the praise of Hashem only arose from the water, as the possuk states, ‘From the voice of a multitude of mighty water, Hashem is mighty on High.’ Hashem said, ‘If this is the case with water, which have no mouth and cannot speak, all the more so with people!’ So he created man. When man corrupted his ways, Hashem said, ‘Let the world return to its previous state,’ and he brought the mabul.”
Punishment or Praise?
At first glance, the mabul was a method of punishment, to penalize mankind for their evil ways. This Midrash, however, views the mabul from a different perspective: its waters offered praise to Hashem.
In Torah Ohr, the Alter Rebbe explains the mabul in a similar way: the waters of the mabul purified the world; therefore it rained for forty days, corresponding to the forty se’ah of water found in a mikvah. However, the Midrash is saying something much more. Not only did the mabul purify the world, it entailed praise for Hashem!
What does this mean? And what is the comparison to mutes?
Aquatic Vs. Terrestrial
There are two categories of living beings: aquatic creatures and animals that live on dry land.
Just like aquatic creatures were created from the water, land animals were created from the earth. However, there is a major difference between them: while aquatic animals remain within the water, land animals do not live inside the ground. Instead, they live on top of the earth, and they can even jump off the ground into the air.
In other words, aquatic creatures are batel to their source of life, and it is clear to all that they cannot exist without it—as soon as they leave the water, they die. By contrast, although land animals recognize that they derive their vitality from the earth, they do not possess such a great degree of bittul. Moreover, since their bittul is poor, it is possible for them to forget entirely about their source of life.
A Watery World
We can now understand the Midrash.
When Hashem first created the world, it was dominated by the bittul of water. In other words, every created being felt how its entire existence was only there because Hashem is creating it each moment. At that time, the very existence of every creature exuded praise of Hashem.
The Midrash compares the water to mutes. To be mute represents one who is completely batel, like a person standing before a king. Such a person cannot speak; he can’t even speak praises of the king! Only once he’s outside of the king’s presence, where he begins to feel himself as a metzius, can he open his mouth.
This can be compared to the bittul of Shemoneh Esrei. During Pesukei Dezimra and Krias Shema, we are still a separate existence and are therefore able to contemplate on Hashem’s greatness and praise Him. However, when we reach Shemoneh Esrei (the level of Atzilus), we should be so batel to Hashem that we must preface: “Hashem sefasai tiftach—open my mouth, because on my own I am unable to utter anything at all!” Even praising Hashem would otherwise be impossible at that point.
This was the initial state of the world—a state where it was impossible to verbally sing praises to Hashem; instead, every creature’s very existence expressed Hashem’s greatness.
Replacing the Mutes
When Hashem saw this, He said: “If mutes praise Me so beautifully, how much more so people who can speak!”
What does this mean?
To be completely batel to Hashem is indeed an amazing thing. Ultimately, however, the person as a person isn’t praising Hashem. Rather, Hashem’s unlimited light illuminates him to the extent that he is overcome with an overwhelming bittul to Him.
Hashem didn’t want the world to remain covered with water. Instead, he caused the waters to gather in the oceans so that dry land would appear. Similarly, the goal is that people should have the ability to think and speak, and they should use these abilities to reflect on Hashem’s greatness and praise Him. To this end, Hashem settled the world with people who can speak—namely, people who feel that they exist, so that created beings such as these would praise Him too.
But what ended up happening? Instead of extolling the king, the speaking people said, “The palace is ours.” Instead of using their intellect and speech to praise Hashem, mankind—who are endowed with free choice—utilized their capabilities to rebel against Him, and they corrupted their ways. Therefore, Hashem said, “Let the world return to its previous state”—a state where everything is covered with water, where the world is pervaded with an absolute bittul to Him.
The Mabul as a Mikvah
After the mabul, Hashem swore that He would never destroy the world again. If the mabul was so great, why did Hashem make this promise?
The goal is not that we should remain in a state of total bitul to Hashem, but rather that we should exist and use our intellect and speech to praise Hashem. By bringing the mabul, Hashem ensured that man won’t use his intellect to rebel against his Creator, ch”v.
The mabul, like a mikvah, purified the world of its corruption and removed this rebellious element from man. (This is the deeper meaning of the possuk, “leshaches es ha’aretz”: the mabul destroyed the artziyus, the lowly crassness of the world.) As a result, we can be an existence that can think and speak, while channeling these abilities toward singing Hashem’s praises.
What’s more, the mabul empowers us to praise Hashem beyond the limited capacities of our finite existence.
The advantage of “dry land” over “water” is that we are a metzius, and yet we use our faculties to praise Hashem. But water, too, has an advantage: the person’s bitul is deeper and greater than the limited praises that a finite being can offer.
The mabul empowers us to combine both advantages. On the one hand, we live on dry land; we are created beings who feel our existence, and we are able to talk. However, we are now post-mabulpeople. The mabul’s waters instill their advantage within us, so that our existence as we sense it stands in a state of complete bitul to Hashem.
This fusion will be achieved in the days of Moshiach, about which the possuk states, “The earth will be filled with knowledge of Hashem as the waters cover the ocean.” The world will not revert to water; it will remain “earth,” dry land. Therefore, it will be filled with “knowledge of Hashem”; we will have the ability to think and contemplate. At the same time, however, the world will enveloped in the bitul of water—“as the waters cover the ocean.”
For further study, see the maamar Bereishis Bara 5727 (Toras Menachem vol. 48, pp. 160-162)