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The Floodwaters of Noah

November 1, 2017

I wrote the following for the Baltimore Jewish Times (

One of my favorite Shabbat zemirot (songs sung at the Shabbat meal) is “Yom Shabaton,” a song attributed to Rabbi Yehudah haLevi (1075-1140). The entire song centers around imagery from Parshat Noah. The chorus begins with the line “On [Shabbat] the dove found rest,” referring to the dove that Noah sent from the Ark to test whether the floodwaters had receded. The song concludes with a promise that bad things will not happen to the Jewish people because of the promise God made to us “over the Waters of Noah” (mei Noah). The phrase mei Noah (the waters of Noah) comes from Isaiah 54:9 — “… As I swore that the waters of Noah nevermore would flood the earth, so I swear that I will not be angry with you or rebuke you.”

Why are the floodwaters attributed to Noah? Noah, after all, was a tzadik, the only person of his entire generation worthy of being saved from the flood. Why then does Isaiah say “the waters of Noah,” implying that Noah was responsible for the flood?

Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz (1902-1978) explained, “It is attributed to Noah because he did not pray on behalf of his generation.” Basing himself on a passage in the Zohar, he wrote that even if Noah knew that his generation had sinned beyond the point of no return, Noah should have still been concerned for his fellow citizens to pray for them. Noah is responsible for the floodwaters because he did not do all he could to save the world. Even worse, by not praying for them, Noah showed that he had given up on humanity. He should have shown concern and empathy for others; even those whose fate is sealed.

The message could not be more relevant for us. We must be constantly concerned for the world around us and for broader society. Indeed, the Torah states that the Ark contained a tzohar, which many commentators translate as a window. I believe that this component of the Ark parallels a ruling brought in the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 90) that synagogue be constructed with windows. The reason for this is that our prayers should be directed outwards, to the world around us. Every time we enter a synagogue to pray, it should be our hope and desire to improve the world around through our prayers. By the same token, we must also allow our prayers to be influenced by the world around us. We do not pray in a vacuum but out of an awareness of what is happening in the world, and out of a real concern for the rest of humanity. With this awareness, we avoid the mistake made by Noah; we internalize the message of Mei Noah.

Rabbi Elliot Kaplowitz is the spiritual leader of Congregation Netivot Shalom.


From → Parsha, Uncategorized

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