Between the Lines—No·ah

Weekly Midrash Learning with Rabbi Andy Shugerman

Genesis Rabbah 31:11

צוהר תעשה לתיבה ר׳ חוניה ור׳ פנחס ר׳ חנין ור׳ הושעיא לא מפרשין ר׳ אבא בר כהנא ורבי לוי מפרשין ר׳ אבא בר כהנא אמר חלון רבי לוי אמר מרגליות רבי פנחס משום רבי לוי אמר כל י״ב חדש שהיה נח בתיבה לא צריך לא לאור החמה ביום ולא לאור הלבנה בלילה אלא מרגלית היתה לו והיה תולה אותה ובשעה שהיא כהה היה יודע שהוא יום ובשעה שהיתה מבהקת היה יודע שהוא לילה

A [source of] light (tzohar) shall you make for the ark . . . (Gen. 6:16). R. Hunya and R. Phinehas, R. Hanan and R. Hoshaya could not explain [the term tzohar]; R. Abba b. Kahana and R. Levi did explain it. R. Abba b. Kahana said: It means a skylight; R. Levi said: A precious stone.

R. Phinehas said in R. Levi's name: During the whole twelve months that Noah was in the Ark he did not require the light of the sun by day or the light of the moon by night, but he had a polished gem which he hung up: when it was dim he knew that it was day, and when it shone he knew that it was night.

How is prayer like a window or a gem? One early modern response to the midrash above answers that question with devotional creativity.

In attempting to define the meaning of tzohar, a term that appears only once in the Hebrew Bible, R. Abba b. Kahana infers that it simply means window. R. Levi, on the other hand, imagines it as a magical gem that would both illuminate the ark and maintain its inhabitants' circadian rhythm of days and nights within the enclosed space. Both Rabbis seek to explain how God expects Noah to bring light into the flood's darkness.

Hundreds of years later, the Baal Shem Tov, or "Besht" (1700–1760), applied these ideas to the role of language in prayer through a clever wordplay: teivah, the Torah's term for ark, also means word in Rabbinic Hebrew. My senior colleague at JTS, Davidson School dean Dr. Barry Holtz, co-edited a collection of spiritual teachings entitled Your Word is Fire: The Hasidic Masters on Contemplative Prayer, in which the following commentary by the Besht (from page 40 in the 1993 edition) appears:

The ark of Noah is the word of prayer. "Make yourself a window for the ark"—let the words of prayer be a window through which you see to the ends of the earth.

The window is the "light" in the ark which is the word: Speak the word in such a way that the inner light shines through it.

Each letter contains worlds and souls and the Presence of God. As the letters are joined to one another and form the words of prayer, all that is within them rises up to God. One who joins his soul to this process brings all the worlds together in boundless joy.

According to this interpretation, God's command to Noah during the flood continues to apply to all of us today. In order to preserve the world that God spoke into being, we must bring new light and energy to the words and rituals of our liturgy. Of course, such an intense mystical focus on devotional language has an ethical counterpart, as this theology also requires attention to our everyday speech. Indeed, each syllable that we utter, according to the Besht, has the power to create or destroy worlds.

May all the words of our mouths be acceptable to You and bring greater light, beauty, truth, and vitality to the world.