Judaism: Safe in the Land of Israel
Parshat Noah records the story of the Flood – the story which is so well-known that we have no need to repeat it – and its aftermath, the origins of mankind’s seventy nations, the Tower of Babel, and the genealogy from Noach to Abraham.
The impression that the Torah gives us is that the Flood inundated the entire planet: “The waters overpowered and increased greatly on the land, and the Ark travelled on the surface of the waters. The waters overpowered very greatly on the land, and all the high mountains which are under the heavens were covered” (Genesis 7:18-19).
However the Midrash expounds: “All existence in the world was wiped out, as it says ‘…and He wiped out all existence that was on the face of the earth’ (Genesis 7:23) – other than Noah and all with him in the Ark…and other than the Land of Israel, upon which the rains did not fall” (Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer 23).
Another Midrash cites the same idea. At the end of the Flood, as the waters were receding, Noah sent out the dove who returned with an olive-leaf in her beak (Genesis 8:10-11). “And from where did the dove bring this leaf? – Rabbi Levi said: She brought it from the Land of Israel, because it had not been inundated in the Flood” (Midrash Lekach Tov; see also Vayikra Rabbah 31:10 and Shir ha-Shirim Rabbah 1:4, which also cite Rabbi Levi’s statement).
The Talmud (Zevachim 113a) cites Rabbi Yochanan who also agreed that the Flood did not reach the Land of Israel (although there his view is disputed by Reish Lakish).
After Noah and his family left the Ark, G-d forged His covenant with him and all his descendants: “G-d said to Noach and to his sons with him: As for Me – I hereby establish My covenant with you and with your descendants after you, and with every living creature which is with you… And I will maintain My covenant with you, such that all flesh will never again be cut off by waters of flood, and there will never again be a flood to destroy the earth” (Genesis 9:8-11).
G-d’s covenant here does not guarantee that there will never again be destruction. “Rabbi Meir says: A flood of water there will never be; however, a flood of fire and brimstone, in the way that He brought on the Sodomites, there can be” (Tosefta, Ta’anit 2:13).
The Ohr ha-Chayim (Rabbi Chayim ben Atar, Morocco and Israel 1696-1743) notes a seeming redundancy in G-d’s promise to Noah. He promised both “that all flesh will never again be cut off by waters of flood”, and also that “there will never again be a flood to destroy the earth”. Loosely based on the Talmud (Sotah 11a), the Ohr ha-Chayim expounds: “The promise that ‘all flesh will never again be cut off by waters of flood’ means that HaShem will not bring a flood to destroy everyone; however, if some are guilty then HaShem will bring the evil of flood upon them.
And then He reiterated that ‘there will never again be a flood to destroy the earth’, meaning that if a flood will come on part of the world, HaShem said that it will not destroy the world in the way that the Flood destroyed the very body of the world” (commentary to Genesis 9:11).
The S’forno (Rabbi Ovadyah S’forno, Italy, c.1470-1550) indicates another limitation to G-d’s promise not to destroy the world again. He notes that G-d’s covenant is preceded by the injunction not to murder (vs. 5-6) and the injunction to “be fruitful and multiply” (v. 7), and deduces: “‘As for Me – I hereby establish My covenant’; on condition that you do not shed innocent blood, I establish My covenant not to destroy the world again” (commentary to Genesis 9:9).
Noah’s Flood in the year 1656 from Creation was not just an isolated historical event with no bearing on or relevance for future generations. The Zohar picks up on the verse, “In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life…all the wellsprings of the great deep were broken open and the openings of the heavens opened” (Genesis 7:11), and extrapolates: “In the six hundredth year of the sixth thousand, the higher gates of wisdom and the lower wellsprings of wisdom will be opened” (Zohar, Volume 1, Parashat Vayeira 117a).
The “six hundredth year of the sixth thousand”, that is the year 5600 since Creation, corresponding to the Gregorian year 1840, was indeed a period when “higher gates of wisdom” – new insights into Torah – were opened. A century after the Baal Shem Tov, the Hassidic world was at last conquering Jewry. The last undisputed Rebbe of all Hassidism, Rebbe Yisrael of Rizhin, Rebbe Yitzhak of Worpe, Rebbe Meir of Premishlan, Rebbe Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, Rebbe Moshe of Ujhely, Rebbe Mendel of Worke and others were revolutionising Jewish thought and understanding.
Meanwhile in the Lithuanian world, Rabbi Akiva Eiger (who died in 5598), Rabbi Moshe Schreiber, universally known as the Chatam Sofer (who died on 25th Tishrei 5600, 174 years ago last Sunday), the Gaon Mahara”m Asch (Rabbi Meir Asch, Rabbi of Uzhorod), Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch, the Malbim, Rabbi Shlomo Ganzfried (author of the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch), Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik (the Beit ha-Levi), Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin (the Netziv), Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Kalischer (the outstanding exponent of religious Zionism), and others were bursting the dams of understanding of Halachah, of Talmud study, and of Midrash.
Meanwhile, in the Eastern communities, it was the era of Rabbi Yosef Chayim (the Ben Ish Chai) in Baghdad and Rabbi Ya’akov Abu-Hatzera (the Abir Ya’akov, father of the Baba Sali) in Morocco.
It was also the era of the beginning of the reawakening of Zion. It was the period when disciples of the Vilna Gaon, Rabbi Moshe Sacks, the Chatam Sofer, Rabbi Yehudah Alkelai, and others began streaming to the Land of Israel. It was the time when hundreds of rabbis from Europe and the Arab Moslem world were making Aliyah, bringing uncountable followers with them, reviving ancient communities and establishing new communities throughout the Land.
It was the period when, for the first time, even non-religious Jews began understanding the centrality of the Land of Israel, as the secular Zionist movement began.
And it was also the time when “the lower wellsprings of wisdom were opened” – the time when secular knowledge and understanding, science and technology, politics and philosophy, art and communication, leaped forward in the greatest spurt of progress in human history.
The Zohar (ibid) continues: “This will prepare the world to advance to the seventh thousand, like a man who prepares himself to enter the Shabbat as sunset on the sixth day approaches”.
That is to say – the explosion of knowledge and wisdom in “the six hundredth year of the sixth thousand”, both “the higher gates of wisdom” of Torah-knowledge and “the lower wellsprings of wisdom” of secular wisdom, were directed to prepare the world for the perfect Shabbat – the period of final Redemption.
We have already seen that the flood-waters did not destroy the Land of Israel. And we have also seen that there can yet be further destruction – not universal flood-waters but localised floods, and (G-d preserve us!) nigh-universal flood of fire.
Is the destruction of fire approaching? – If the history of the last century and a half (since the wellsprings of wisdom burst open) teaches us anything, it is that when the lower wellsprings of wisdom are unrestrained by the higher gates of wisdom of Torah, then the flood of fire and destruction is well-nigh inevitable.
The flood, the fire, already rumbles. Now, as 4,118 years ago when Noah entered the Ark, there is a safe haven. Perhaps today, as then, the Flood will not wreak its destruction in the Land of Israel.
In the aftermath of the Flood, mankind began to cluster in the plain of Shinar, and there Nimrod began to enslave them (Genesis 11:1-9). This was the first universal tyranny in history, and Nimrod sought to build the Tower of Babel in order to establish his own dominion and to lead the whole of mankind in rebellion against G-d (Hullin 89a; Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer 24; Targum Yonatan, Genesis 10:11).
Nimrod succeeded in extending his tyranny throughout the inhabited world – except for the Land of Israel. Israel alone in the world remained a free country, free in which to serve the One true G-d, which was why Shem and Ever established their Yeshivah in Israel (Malbim, commentary to Genesis 11:7 and 11:30).
As then, all those millennia ago, so too today as we prepare to enter the seventh thousand – the perfect Shabbat of the final Redemption. Only in Israel is the Jew truly safe from the flood, whether of water or of fire. And only in Israel is the Jew truly free to learn Torah and to live as a Jew, free of the global tyranny which shackles him and subjugates him to the fickle whims of unpredictable human rulers and regimes.
Only in Israel will the Jew be able to celebrate that final, eternal Shabbat, the Shabbat which is swiftly approaching as the sun prepares to set on the sixth millennium.