Well, here we are, post holidays and post creation, and what do we read about? A corrupt generation, an unnatural disaster, a sole survivor, his family, and ‘pets’, and an aborted building project. It doesn’t seem like much of an upbeat start for the New Year!
However, along comes the Baal Shem Tov, and saves the day. Combining the insights of a poet, a linguist, a mystic and a prophet, he reminds us that the word for ark- Teiva, also means ‘word.’ Therefore when G-d tells Noah to come into the Teiva, he also- or perhaps even primarily- is telling him how to cope with the floods of everyday life that come gushing in when the dam of festivals has dissolved. He explains that the Teiva represents the words of Torah and prayer that can not only sustain us inwardly but provide us with perspectives that allow us to see and manifest G-dliness in our everyday lives. The key is the next verse: ‘Tzohar taaseh l’teiva,’ meaning: ‘Make a window for the ark,’ which the Baal Shem Tov again interprets: ‘Make a light for the words.’
One of the foremost students of the Baal Shem Tov, Rabbi Yaacov Yosef of Polonoy, expands his rebbe’s words: Raising a question posed by the Ramban, Rabbi YY asks, ‘how is it possible to change a divine decree from bad to good? Especially in light of the sages remark in the Talmudic tractate Baba Kama, that ‘one who prays for his friend, while he needs the same salvation, is answered first.’
His response lies at the heart of the Kabbalistic understanding of the universe. The expression that is used regarding the power of prayer is that it can change the ‘gzar din,’ which literally means, ‘the cut of the judgment.’ The Rebbe explains: ‘The words are the outward manifestation of the prayer, but the light refers to the kavanah, the intention and understanding that one puts into prayer. In a parallel way, the judgment or harsh decree is an outward expression of a hidden good that, based on the individual standing of a person at any given moment, can only come down in a concealed- meaning, severe- expression. However, if the person who prays can connect the words with the intention, G-d so to speak, may do the same and transform the bitter into a sweeter, more revealed form of divine intervention.
This shift then transforms that person to the extent that he/she is no longer the same person who needed that severe decree. Thus the Baal Shem Tov explains that the word for trouble, TZARAH, is actually spelled with the same letters as TZOHAR, window or light. In short, our prayers, both for ourselves and another, change the letters which translate as difficulty, into letters that translate into salvation and help.
This teaching may seem rather abstruse and complex but if you think about it, it is very much in keeping with principles of quantum physics, where the observer- you and me- have greater power over any given outcome than we thought we had. In fact, perhaps this was Noach’s greatest mistake- i.e., not to realize that G-d wants our input: He wants us to pray, and even to argue with him for a just cause. Didn’t we just read during the High Holidays, ‘Teshuva, Tefilla, and Tzedaka,-Return, Prayer, and Charity, transform ‘Roah Hagezeira,’ the negativity of the decree?
Many years ago, if I would here a fire engine, I would just worry about where it was going. Later I would ‘graduate’ to thinking, ‘Thank G-d it’s not me.’ Then I heard a lecture from Carolyn Myss, a new age psychologist and medical intuitive. She told a story about a woman who was in a car collision. The woman in the other car was knocked unconscious and the first woman uttered a prayer that the second woman would recover and heal. Later she went to visit the injured woman in the hospital. When the patient found out who the visitor was, she exclaimed: ‘Thank you so much for praying for me; I’m sure it contributed to my healing process!’
After that, and when meditating on the above teaching of the Baal Shem Tov, I began to develop some degree of understanding of the power of prayer, especially for another. After all, when we can climb out of our own skin, even in our thoughts, we touch a level where we are all connected. From that place of connectivity, we are no longer praying for a separate person; we are praying for our own wellbeing too. And we are reversing the causes of destruction and chaos, the isolationist feeling that led to the flood in the first place.
The latter event in Noach, the story of the Tower of Babel, makes the same case from the opposite angle. The Zohar points out that even though their aim was misdirected-to reach the heavens and ‘make a name’ for themselves, the power of unity was so great that G-d, so to speak, could not interfere until he disrupted their languages, which fragmented their unity. Such is the power of speech, both for good, and G-d forbid, for harm.
Especially in the light of the tragic suicides of several teens in the last month, we need to recognize the impact of words, and be reminded to respect the image of G-d that is in all people, youth in particular. Perhaps that is the significance of the merging colors of the rainbow that G-d showed Noah after the flood: Even when we come out of the ark, we are all in the same boat. To make fun of another is to belittle ourselves. To help another is to help ourselves. The life you save may be your own.