Time is a storm in which we are all lost. ” (William Carlos Williams, Introduction to “Selected Essays”)
I always had a hard time relating to the story of the Flood on a literal level. Why would God want to wipe out all people He created in full knowledge that they would sin? Like it was a surprise for God! God, who exists above time, which He created, has no surprises. Then why to create humanity just to destroy it later? And animals… what was their fault? They have no freedom of choice. They act on instincts hard-wired in their genome as they were created. Why punish them? Lots of questions, few answers. If the Torah says the flood happened, it must have happened. However, the Torah is not a textbook of geology or paleontology. What is teaching us with this story? What is the symbolic significance of the flood?
To me, the story of the flood is the metaphor for time. Water has always served as a metaphor for time. Heraclitus famously said, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” Marcus Aurelius wrote in his mediations: “Time is a river, a violent current of events, glimpsed once and already carried past us, and another follows and is gone.” “The water you touch in a river is the last of that which has passed, and the first of that which is coming. Thus it is with time present,” wrote Leonardo da Vinci. French philosopher Jose Luis Borges writes that “time is a river that sweeps me along.” Ursula Le Guin famously wrote that “story is our only boat for sailing on the river of time.” Flowing water is the best metaphor we have for the flow of time.
The waters of the Flood are called in Hebrew mayim rabbim, i.e., “great waters.” To me, great waters symbolize the passing of time on a grand scale. This is the meaning of the flood killing all living beings – only time kills everything and everyone. As Hector Berlioz wrote, “Time is a great teacher, but unfortunately it kills all its pupils.” One can only survive turbulent waters of the deluge by not fighting violent current, but staying in the moment and letting the currents take you where they may.
Time is a flowing river. Happy those who allow themselves to be carried, unresisting, with the current. They float through easy days. They live, unquestioning, in the moment.” (Christopher Morley, “Where the Blue Begins”)
The Biblical account of the deluge provide further details strengthenning our metaphor.
…all the fountains of the great deep broken up, and the windows of heaven were opened.” (Gen. 7:11)
The waters coming from below are called in the Zohar feminine waters (mayin nukvin). The waters from above are masculine waters (mayin dukhrin). As the Sefer Yetzirah teaches, Parzuf Ima “Supernal Mother” (Sefirah of Binah), represents the future. Parzuf Aba (Supernal Father) (Sefirah of Chokhmah) represents the past. I think, the Ark, floating between the waters from below and water from above, between future and past, represents the present. Noah with his family and all animals survived the flood in the Ark – this is a metaphor for the fact that one can only live in the present moment. Dreamers who only dream about the future never doing anything about it in the present and those who are stuck in the past are swapped away by the great waters of time. Only those who live in the present survive. The present moment that is infinitesimally short is the portal to eternity.
Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in… Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains.” (Henry David Thoreau, “Walden”)
The cessation of the flood, when waters were wiped away from the earth, symbolized the messianic time when all death will be wiped away forever.