The Foundation of the World – The Zohar, Parashat Noah

Due to the Zohar’s explicit usage of sexual symbolism in this chapter, this article may not be appropriate for work.  All quotations are taken from Zohar: Pritzker Edition Volume One, translated by Daniel Matt, unless otherwise noted.  

The Zohar continues to draw up secret meanings of Torah with it’s third chapter and analysis of the story of Noah.  Titled Parashat Noah, the beginning of the chapter focuses on a discussion of Noah, his sexual purity (he was born circumcised!), and how this allowed him to enter the ark.   In the symbolic system of the Zohar, the themes of righteousness and sexual purity gravitate around the area of the phallus on the sephirot, which is also described as the body of God. 

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In the Zohar, our level of reality is called Malkhut and is symbolically associated with the female.   Since Malkhut “receives” its energy from within God and its higher divine realms, it is characterized as female.  That flow of energy is given to the female, characterizing its expression as male. The give and take between these two realms is described in terms of a charged, erotic relationship.  Where does the Kabbalist fit into this schema?

Taking a cue from the passage “righteousness and justice are the foundations of Your throne” (Psalms 89:15), the mystic becomes an integral part of the libidinal system.  Since our reality has been divorced from blessing through human action, the mystic is needed to correct this imbalance.   Through righteous action and creating interpretations of Torah, the Kabbalist unites the discord between the masculine and feminine God, reestablishing an optimal flow of energy and harmony.  They are the phallic link between the upper and lower, and allow this relationship to reach its fruition.  

Noah is associated with this level, and Parashat Noah elaborates on how this phallic symbolism relates to its discussion of the Ark.  A feature of the Zohar is its reading of Torah on multiple levels that create wonderful connections among all its verses.  The Ark is also read in this case as Malkhut (or Shekinah, the “divine presence”) and once Noah “entered” her, he enabled a new generation to flower after the Flood. Noah, like the Zoharic mystic, is considered a “husband” of Malkhut, wrapped around her in a loving embrace, forever joined to her.  

Noah entered the ark, bringing with him every species of the creatures of the world.  Truly Noah was a tree bearing fruit (Genesis 1:11), and all species of the world sprang from the ark, corresponding to the manner above.  

Come and see when this tree bearing fruit joins the fruit tree: all those supernal species!  Living great and small; countless species, each one unique, as is said: Living beings small and great (Psalms 104:25).  Similarly, Noah in the ark, all of them issuing from the ark, and the world was established, corresponding above.  So he is called Noah, husband of earth (Genesis 9:20), Noah, righteous man (ibid. 6:9) as they have already established.  (Zohar 1:62b, p. 362-363).  

Drawing the reader further into its dialogue on evil and moral responsibility, human sin was what brought on the waters of the Flood.  Another idea that is expressed numerous times in the Zohar is that through human action, God’s expression is biased towards Greatness (Compassion) or Judgment.  God gave humanity time to redeem itself after Adam’s initial sin, but this grace period eventually ran out and God’s judgment devastated the world.  In Parashat Noah, the Zohar elucidates these themes through its telling of the story of the Companions, the mystical brotherhood at the heart of the Zohar’s exegesis. As two of the Companions Rabbi Hiyya and Rabbi Yose wander through mountains, they discuss the history of the Flood and its divine implications. In this dialogue, it becomes clear that the mountains are a grim monument to human sin:

Rabbi Hiyya and Rabbi Yose were walking on the way.  They encountered the mountains of Kurdistan, where they saw traces of crevices in the earth dating from the time of the Flood.  

Rabbi Hiyya said to Rabbi Yose, ‘These crevices are vestiges of the Flood, preserved by the blessed Holy One ever since, throughout the generations, that the sins of the wicked not be obliterated from His sight.  For such is the way of the blessed Holy One: He wants the virtuous who do His will to be remembered above and below, their blessed memory unforgotten generation to generation.  Similarly He wants to the sins of the wicked, who fail to do His will, not to be forgotten, their punishment and evil memory remembered generation to generation, as is written: ‘Stained is in your iniquity before Me’ (Jeremiah 2:22).  

In the story of the Flood, God turned over judgment to “the Destroyer,” whose judgment was so immense that it cleansed the Earth.  The Destroyer is associated with the demonic, and when humans rely upon that evil taproot, it eventually corrupts and eliminates them. Evil in this sense is also linked to judgment, as its practitioners bring the judgments of hell upon themselves.  This interpretation allows for humans to take a place in the cosmos, choosing the blessings of righteousness or the punishments of sin for themselves.  

In one of its group dialogues on this subject, some of the Companions go into this further, describing how humanity’s sin ultimately caused the judgment of the Flood to manifest.

And I, I am about to bring the Flood, as we have established: to unleash the Destroyer upon them, since through him, they had defiled themselves.  

Rabbi Yose said, ‘Woe to the wicked who, having sinned, refuse to return to the blessed Holy One while still in the world!  For when a person returns, regretting his sins, the blessed holy One forgives him, but all those who cling to their sins, refusing to return to the blessed holy One, will eventually fall into Hell, never to be raised.  

Come and see: Since the entire generation of Noah hardened their hearts, desiring to flaunt their sins, the blessed Holy One executed judgment upon them in a similar manner . . . These wicked ones were obliterated from earth.  Obliterated?  How?  Waters gushed boiling from the abyss, rising and peeling off their skin, then their flesh, leaving nothing but bones, fulfilling the verse: They were obliterated from the earth (Genesis 7:23).  All those bones disjointed from one another, no longer together, so they were totally eradicated from the world.  (387-388)

A focal element of the Zohar, and part of what makes it such an engaging read, is its use of a central story to combine its themes and bring the reader through its rich interpretive processes.  The story element is particularly playful in the Noah chapter, with several characters coming and going.  The characters play with a variety of themes that include righteousness, judgment, and redemption that are hallmarks of the Kabbalistic story. They return to these motifs throughout Parashat Noah, building on them with increasing subtlety and grace. 

The Zohar also uses linguistic analysis to examine Torah on deeper levels.  This technique looks at the structure of letters and words in the Torah, and treats them as significant to understanding the divine story.  Since this approach describes a Torah that is infinitely rich in meaning, its analysis adds another level in which they can discover divine will and its secrets.

This element is frequently couched in the story element and is used to great effect.  While traveling in the mountains, Rabbi Hiyya and Rabbi Yose meet a Jewish traveler.  The traveler proceeds through an exploration of the theme of judgment found in Noah.  Furthering on the Companions inquiry into the Flood, he provides a linguistic analysis of the use of the word “Elohim” in a certain passage:

When they reached the site of a certain field they sat down.  That man asked, ‘Why is it written: And YHVH rained brimstone and fire on Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19:24), whereas in the Flood it is everywhere written: Elohim, Elohim?  Because we have learned: ‘Everywhere it is written: And YHVH – this means ‘He and His Court.’ Elohim, unspecified, means Judgment alone.’  Now, at Sodom judgment was executed, yet not destroying the world, so He intermingled with Judgment, but in the Flood It destroyed the whole world and all those present in the world.  

Now you might say, ‘But look, Noah and his companions were saved!’  Come and see: Noah was hidden from sight, invisible! So everything present in the world It destroyed.  

Therefore: And YHVH – in the open, not destroying all.  Elohim – one needs concealment and must seek protection, for It destroys all.  So Elohim was alone.  (376)

Another significant dialogue is found with a child (interestingly named Abba, or Father), who proceeds to elaborate on further mysteries of Torah.  He uses a passage from Genesis that focuses on Noah after the Flood, and uses it to explore new meanings of the text. Emerging from the Ark after the Flood, Noah builds an altar and makes an offering to God.  To discover the verse’s secret meaning, Abba does a mystical reading of the verse, discussing how an offering done in this fashion quelled the divine wrath and allowed peace to return once more to Earth.  

Noah built an altar to YHVH, and took of every pure animal and of every pure bird, and offered ascent-offerings on the altar Genesis 8:20 . . . 

Of this is written:  They shall place incense in Your nostril (Deuteronomy 33:10), for fire returns to its site, and through that aroma the nose contracts inward, inward – till all is embraced, returning to its site, all drawn in toward thought, becoming a single desire.  Then (Reiah nihoah) a pleasing aroma, for wrath (nah), subsides, yielding (neyaha), tranquility – for smoke is absorbed, condensed in fire, grasping smoke, both entering within, within, until wrath subsides.  When all intermingles and wrath subsides, then tranquility, a single nexus named ‘tranquility’ – tranquility of spirit, joy of all as one, radiance of sparkling lamps, radiance of faces.  So it is written: YHVH smelled [the pleasing aroma], like one inhaling, drawing everything in to its site.  (412)

Unfortunately, the Flood was not enough to totally redeem those who came after.  The story of Noah effects another fall, this time from “the sacred to the secular.”  As we discussed earlier, this ensured that reality became more closely tied to the demonic serpent, and sin obscured the divine light.  And since Israel was not able to grant its blessings to the world and fulfill its cosmic vocation, Earth remained in its fallen state.  Furthering this turning away from God, the Companions discuss how Nimrod, “garbed in the garments of Adam,” used the power of the garments to draw worship away from God and towards other idols.  

Not even Noah could effect a redemption, as he was not prepared for what he was to find when he looked within the divine mystery.  Rabbi Shim’on, in typical head-exploding fashion, interprets Noah becoming drunk as becoming corrupted by the divine wisdom.  Since Noah was “saturated with the other wine” (or evil), his sons furthered this corruption and humanity’s fall.  Noah could not handle the divine energies he had unleashed.  The Zohar does justice to the possible corruption of spiritual practice, for when humans look within and are unprepared for the scope of their own freedom.  Moses was unique among the Patriarchs for his ability to explore the divine wisdom without becoming corrupt.  

Rabbi Shim’on said, ‘There is a mystery here in this verse.  When he sought to probe the sin probed by Adam – not to cling but to know, to mend the world – he was incapable.  He squeezed grapes to probe that vineyard, but as soon as he arrived, ‘he became drunk and exposed himself (ibid., 21), and was powerless to rise.  So, exposed himself, exposing the breach of the world that had been closed [by Adam].  Inside (oholoh), his tent (ibid.), spelled with a ‘he’: inside oholah, ‘her tent,’ the tent of that vineyard . . . Because the blessed Holy One brought secrets of wisdom down to the world, humanity was corrupted by it and sought to attack Him.  He gave supernal wisdom to Adam, and through that revealed wisdom he discovered rungs and clung to the evil impulse until the springs of wisdom vanished.  Afterward he returned to the presence of his Lord, and some was revealed, though not as before.  Later through that book of his, he discovered wisdoms, but then people appeared and provoked Him.  

He gave wisdom to Noah, who thereby served the blessed Holy One.  Afterward what is written?  He drank of the wine and became drunk, and exposed himself (Genesis 9:21), as has been explained. 

He gave wisdom to Abraham, who thereby served the blessed Holy One.  Afterward Ishmael issued from him, who provoked the blessed Holy One.  Similarly Isaac, from whom issued Esau.  Jacob married two sisters.  

He gave wisdom to Moses.  What is written of him?  Throughout My house he is faithful (Numbers 12:7).  There was none as faithful as Moses: he performed on all those rungs, yet his heart did not stray into desiring any of them; rather, he stood firm in supernal faith fittingly . . . 

Come and see: With fragments of wisdom discovered by these people from wisdom of the ancients, they antagonized the blessed Holy One, built a tower, and perpetrated all they did – until they were scattered over the face of the earth, lacking the wisdom to accomplish anything.  But in the time to come the blessed Holy One will arouse wisdom in the world, with which He will be served, as is written: ‘I will put My spirit within you and cause you’ – not like the ancients who ruined the world with it, but rather: ‘cause you to follow My Laws and carefully observe My rules.     433-447

The chapter concludes with the building of Babel, when God realized that if humanity united with a common language and singular will, they could no longer be judged.  Therefore God broke up humanity.  This furthered the corruption of the fall, and humanity would not receive the revelations of Torah, and the Ten Commandments until Israel’s exile from Egypt and their experience at Mount Sinai.  

I’m five volumes in and the Zohar has slowly come into its own, somehow masterfully combining insightful analyses, poetic language, the erotic, the mystical, an interesting story, and a relentless creativity into a book like nothing I’ve ever read.  The Zohar is a peerless work of spiritual literature, and I’m looking forward to doing further essays, as close re-readings bring out the true wonder that this text provides at every step.  

Next up is Parashat Lekh Lekha, “Go You Forth,” the Companions adventures starting with Genesis 12:1-17:27.  

You can purchase the Pritzker Edition Zohar from Stanford University Press here. You can also purchase it from Amazon here.

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