As residents of South Carolina begin to emerge from the floodwaters that inundated their state, Jews around the world are reading the story of Noah and the ark this week in their synagogues. Water is both the source of all life and the greatest destructive force on earth. I ponder the paradox in these reflections from after the Pacific Rim tsunami of 2005.
Volcanoes. Hurricanes. Earthquakes. Fires. Tornadoes. Blizzards. Drought.
In a time when reports of terrorism have become all too common, it is sobering to consider the myriad ways nature possesses to inflict death and violence on a scale surpassing the most destructive instruments devised by man. Of all these, however, destruction by water, whether from the sea or from the sky, holds a unique terror in the scope and measure of its devastation.
Aside from the 150,000 lives already reported lost across nearly a dozen countries along the Indian Ocean, dehydration, disease and hunger threaten as many as 5 million more in the wake of the recent tsunami. And rare though tidal waves may be, the more familiar trial-by-water of floods has, with much greater frequency, left similar numbers homeless and in danger of starvation.
It seems ironic that water, the source and foundation of all life upon our planet, can become nature’s most malevolent instrument against the beings whose lives depend upon it.
Devastation by water occupies a prominent place in human history. Virtually every ancient culture records the tradition of a great flood that inundated the world, lending credence to the biblical account of Noah and the ark. Jewish tradition describes this not as a random event, but as a divine response to the corruption of mankind.
The Talmud, however, reports a much more enigmatic account of divine intervention through water. It was in a time of terrible drought that the Jewish people approached the sage Choni HaMagil and beseeched him to pray for rain on their behalf. When Choni’s supplications to the Almighty went unanswered, he drew a circle in the dust and stepped inside of it, vowing not to leave the circle until G-d bestowed rain upon His people.
Immediately, a fine mist settled upon the earth, too little to alleviate the drought but sufficient to free Choni from his vow.
Choni called out to heaven: “I asked not for this, but for a rain to fill all the wells and cisterns.” Immediately, raindrops larger than melons began to fall, wreaking destruction upon homes and fields.
Again Choni called out to heaven: “Neither did I ask for this, but for a rain of blessing.” Immediately a normal rain began to fall, filling the wells and cisterns of the people as Choni had requested. But the rain did not stop, and soon the entire population of the land feared that they would drown in the rising waters.
One last time Choni called out heavenward: “Master of the World, Your people, Israel, whom You brought out from Egypt, can tolerate neither too much blessing nor too much misfortune.” Immediately the waters abated, and the people returned to their fields. From this time onward, people referred to Choni by the name HaMagil — the Circle-maker.
What was the point of G-d’s demonstration to the people of Israel? What did Choni mean that the people could not tolerate too much blessing? And why did Choni find it necessary to remind the Almighty, at this particular moment, that He had brought the Jewish people out from Egypt?
The Exodus from Egypt may be described, in commercial terms, as the largest loan ever extended in the history of man. During the generations of slavery in Egypt, the Jewish people had forgotten their Creator and lapsed into the same idolatries as their Egyptian masters. And although, to their credit, the Jews had guarded themselves against assimilation, this alone was insufficient to earn them the privilege of miraculous redemption. Nevertheless, G-d gave them an incalculable line of credit: Freedom from slavery, freedom from oppression, freedom to chart their own course into the future.
Moreover, He promised them immeasurable blessing and unbounded prosperity, on condition that they would repay their loan — repay it by living according to G-d’s law, repay it by rising above material pursuits and petty self-interest, repay it by using all the blessing that G-d would bestow upon them to aspire to moral, ethical, and spiritual perfection.
In this light, blessing may be understood as a double-edged sword. Wielded in one direction, it cuts down all enemies and obstacles that stand before us. Wielded in another, it obligates us to a standard of righteousness and moral behavior that we may find nearly impossible to meet.
This was the meaning behind the Almighty’s response to Choni the Circle-maker’s plea:
Two roads lie before My people, and it is their choice which to follow. One leads back to Egypt, back to the oppression of materialism and the slavery of self-indulgence, back to spiritual emptiness and the absence of all blessing. The other road leads forward, to spiritual fulfillment and spiritual greatness, if My people will only find within themselves the potential to seek greatness and discard all lesser goals. It is for this that I redeemed them, that they might cast off the chains of physicality and reach for the heavens.
And this too was the meaning behind Choni’s appeal to the Almighty:
Master of the World, You brought your people out from slavery and oppression on condition that they would use their freedom and the blessings to strive for spiritual heights. Your people, however, have demonstrated from their beginnings that, whatever their potential may be, they still suffer from human failings and human shortcomings. They cannot tolerate too little material blessing, lest the struggle to survive overwhelms them and they abandon all higher aspirations. And they cannot tolerate too much blessing, lest they cower before the goal set for them and lose all hope of its attainment.
By all accounts, the world that we live in today enjoys a level of material affluence unattained and unimagined by previous generations. Such basic necessities as rapid transit, instantaneous communication, indoor plumbing, electrical lighting and refrigeration, which we take for granted, provide us with an ease of living simply unavailable to even the wealthiest, most powerful monarchs until the last century. The very existence of an “entertainment industry,” much less the staggering sums of money devoted to it, testifies to our abundance of resources — which is to say, our abundance of material blessing.
Nowhere does Jewish tradition teach the condemnation of wealth or of recreation.
Nowhere does Jewish law mandate the forcible redistribution of wealth from those blessed with good fortune to those less fortunate. But Jewish tradition does warn us of the responsibilities of prosperity. It warns us in the narrative of the flood, in the story of Choni HaMagil, and also in the Hebrew word for charity: tzedakah, derived from the word tzedek, or justice.
It is only just that those who are blessed share a portion of their blessing with their less fortunate neighbors. It is only just that, before overindulging in one’s own good fortune, he ponders why he deserves having received such blessing while his neighbor has not. And it is only just that he ask himself how, even in the absences of tax incentives or legal mandate, he might reach out with his blessing to ease his neighbor’s plight.
If the waters of the earth, the life-giving waters that are the source of our greatest blessing — life itself — have risen up to inflict enormous tragedy, swallowing human life and draining billions of dollars of aid to spare human suffering, we will all be remiss if we do not pause to consider whether we have used our blessings wisely, and what we must do to ensure that we will continue to deserve them.