Torah | When wisdom comes, its not always a flood


Genesis 6:9-11:32

Isaiah 54:1-55:5

One of my favorite lines in the Torah begins with a rather mundane detail: the date. God has decided to spare Noah and his family from the great flood and tells him to build an ark, and to take in at least two of every animal to save the species of life on Earth. Then the flood begins with this announcement:

“In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, in the second month, on the seventeenth day of the month — on that day all the fountains of the great deep burst apart, and the floodgates of the heavens broke open” (Genesis 7:11).

On its face, this line just tells us that the rain is starting. But something about its rhythm and its imagery suggests this isn’t going to be just any storm. Great forces are being loosed upon the world. They will come from up above and from deep, down below.

The Zohar, the central text of Jewish mysticism, describes this moment as a cosmic unleashing of great spiritual powers. Then the Zohar includes a startling prediction about when such a moment might once again occur:

“In the 600th year of the sixth millennium the upper gates of wisdom will be opened and also the wellsprings of wisdom below …” The sign for this is the verse: “In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life … all the fountains of the great deep burst apart, and the floodgates of the heavens were opened” (Parashat Vayera).

Now I’m no mystic, but if we do the math here, it is pretty amazing. Because the 600th year of the sixth millennium in the Jewish calendar puts this great moment of overflowing wisdom at the year 1840 on the Western calendar.

And, in fact, 1840 was a moment in history when new forms of understanding were erupting. This was an epoch in the throes of the industrial revolution, the beginning of a new technological age that is still going strong.

It also was a time when political revolutions were sweeping across the globe. In America, Mexico, Haiti, Russia and, above all, in France, major revolutions were radically changing the political consciousness of the modern world.

In the Jewish world as well, things were changing in unprecedented ways, prompted in part by political emancipation in Europe. The Hassidic movement was in full force. Zionism was just coming into recognizable existence. Reform Judaism was changing the Jewish religious landscape. In the midst of all this upheaval — in part because of this passage in the Zohar — messianic fervor was at a fever pitch in many communities.

But the messiah never showed. The year 1840 came and went. And the world moved on. Some would claim that the Zohar’s prediction was nevertheless an accurate accounting of all the “wisdom” that broke out into the world in 1840. But one way or another, it seemed that the gates of heaven had closed once again.

Or had they?

After the 40 days and 40 nights of the flood, we read that “God remembered Noah and all the animals,” sent a wind across the Earth, and the waters subsided. And then, there is a line that echoes the one we started with:

“The fountains of the deep and the floodgates of the heavens were closed, and the rain from the heavens was held back” (Genesis 8:2).

This, of course, is the exact inverse of my favorite line above, the closing of the doors that were opened. Except for one difference, which Rashi points out:

“When they were opened, it is written, ‘all the fountains,’ but here, ‘all’ is not written. Because some remained open, those for which the world had a need…”

All power is not gone from the world. There are wellsprings of wisdom that continue to trickle. We are neither flooded by them, nor will we die of thirst.

Now, I don’t know what to make of mystical predictions that point to signs and call out dates. Certainly there are moments in history when the dams seem to burst open, and new knowledge comes rushing out, in a torrent. But I do like to believe that in any given moment in time, we will always find the wisdom we need.

I hope so. Because the Earth is once again in crisis. The water levels are rising. Yet there seems to be no sign from God, no clear set of instructions on how to survive. If we want to save life on Earth this time, we may have to figure out how to build an ark by ourselves.

Rabbi David Kasher is the senior rabbinic educator at Berkeley-based Kevah. Follow his blog on the weekly Torah portion at