I’ve been having a hard time with my prayers since the war began. I have many friends who find prayer to be difficult, but I love to pray. Many I know rush through the daily prayers, dutifully fulfilling the mitzvah and anxiously moving on to the more important things they have to do. But I pray slowly, breathing deeply, working methodically to empty my mind of all the chaos and static, gradually extricating myself from the world to bask for just a few moments at least in the glow of Godly light that underlies the darkness.
Yet for the past 10 days, it has been exceedingly difficult to shut out the horrific images, to silence the sounds of suffering, to still my racing mind and calm my pounding heart. The pinnacle of the prayer service is the Shema, a moment of perfect unity when everything fades to an immaculate white and I can usually sense a universal oneness in which there is no division, no tension, and no conflict. It is has been difficult to reach that exquisite place of late.
But I learned yesterday a discourse of the Alter Rebbe on this week’s parsha, Noach, and this morning I found that light again in my prayers.
This week we read of Noah and the flood. The Alter Rebbe teaches that “the flood” is a metaphor for all of the hardship and challenge in our lives. The flood is referred to as “Mei Noach” (Isaiah 54:9) which translates as “the waters of Noah.” But the name Noah in Hebrew, Noach, means “comfort,” so the flood is also understood as the “waters of comfort.” How is it, the Alter Rebbe asks, that the flood, which brought death and destruction to the world, can be referred to as comfort?
He answers that the floodwaters were like a global mikvah, or ritual bath, which cleansed the creation and brought purification. Prior to the flood, the earth had grown corrupt: “the earth was corrupt before G‑d, and the earth became full of violence” (Gen. 6:11). The flood therefore came as a result of this corruption – not as a punishment but, as we are to see all of life’s challenges according to the Mystics, as a means of cleansing and purification that will enable us to awaken and return to the proper path.
As a result of the impending flood, Noah built the ark. The word for ark in Hebrew is “teyva,” which also means “word.” The ark, the Alter Rebbe expounds, represents words of prayer. When we are flooded by life’s challenges, we, like Noah, are to enter the “teyva,” the words of prayer, and they will buoy us.
The Alter Rebbe points out a fascinating concept: It is specifically the flood that causes Noah to build the teyva. In other words, it is the challenges of life that inspire us to pray most passionately. Not only that, but the floodwaters lifted Noah’s ark high above the ground – and similarly it is life’s floods that uplift us far above where we were prior.
From this we learn that prayer, according to Torah tradition, is not supposed to be a serene meditation on a mountaintop removed from all the craziness of life. Rather, we are to pray precisely where and when we sit in the middle of the flood. It is our duty and purpose to transform this place of violence and chaos to a place of peace and unity. It is no coincidence that the verse states that “the waters swelled 15 cubits higher than the mountain peaks which they covered” (Genesis 7:19) – the message is clear that through the floods of life we can reach far higher than any serene, removed mountain retreats.
It is the challenges of life that take us to our deepest depths and raise us to our highest heights. The Alter Rebbe teaches that not only can we reach even higher through the flood than we could beforehand, but the soul itself achieves even higher levels through its descent into this dark and confused world than where it sat before it was placed into a body. This is the very secret of creation – that light which comes after darkness is even more brilliant than the original light that existed prior.
Pray in the midst of the flood. Close your eyes, breathe deeply, and visualize the unity that hides behind the darkness. Then open your eyes and do everything you can to be a life raft for those who are drowning around you.