You’ve designated the weekend for some quality time with your family when the phone rings; naturally, it’s an emergency at the office which requires your immediate involvement. You’ve set aside the evening for volunteer work in your community; instead, you spend it with your neighborhood mechanic attending to another eruption of car trouble.
Relatively few of us, fortunately, have faced a “real” flood in which torrents of water threaten to engulf one’s home. But we’re all familiar with the experience of being flooded with the cares of material life, of being swamped with all sorts of matters demanding our attention just when we were finally getting down to the things which are truly important and precious to us.
The Chassidic masters explain that this is the contemporary significance of the great Flood, which the Torah describes in the seventh and eighth chapters of Bereishis. A basic tenet of Chassidic teaching is that the Torah is eternal, its “historical” events connected to ever-present realities in our lives. Noach’s Flood is the prototype for a challenge that we all face: the flood of material concerns which threatens to quench the flame of spiritual striving we harbor in our souls.
Indeed, our Sages tell us that Noach’s Flood began as an ordinary rainfall, which the misdeeds of man caused to escalate into the Flood. In other words, in their proper proportion and context as a regulated means to a higher end, the waters of materiality are a beneficial, life-nurturing rain; but when allowed to overstep their bounds, they become a destructive deluge.
The deeper significance of Noach’s Flood is also reflected in the fact that it began and ended in the second month of the Jewish year, the month of Cheshvan.
The first month of the year, the festival-rich month of Tishrei, is wholly devoted to spiritual pursuits: the renewal of our commitment to Divine sovereignty on Rosh Hashanah; repenting our failings on Yom Kippur; celebrating our unity as a people and G‑d’s providence over our lives on Sukkos; rejoicing in our bond with the Torah on Simchas Torah. The following month, Cheshvan, marks our return to the “daily grind” of material life. Cheshvan is the first full month of the rainy season in the Holy Land, coming after the six rainless months of the summer season and signifying the return to a life that derives its nourishment from the earth. It is no coincidence that Cheshvan (also called “Mar-Cheshvan”—mar meaning both “bitter” and “water”) is the most ordinary of months, the only month of the year without a single festival or special occasion.
The Jewish Calendar
Noach’s Flood commenced on the 17th of Cheshvan in the year 1656 from creation, and ended on 27 Cheshvan of the following year. The Torah commentaries explain that the Flood lasted exactly one year, and that the 11-day discrepancy in the dates represents the 11-day difference between the solar and lunar years.
This reflects the fact that different components of the calendar are based on a variety of natural cycles that do not easily lend themselves to synchronization. The month derives from the moon’s 29.5-day orbit of the earth; the year, from the 365-day solar cycle. The problem is that 12 lunar months add up to 354 days—11 days short of the solar year.
Most calendars deal with this discrepancy by simply ignoring one or the other of the celestial timekeepers. For example, the Gregorian calendar (which has attained near-universal status) is completely solar based. Its 365 days are divided into 12 segments of 30 or 31 days, but these “months” have lost all connection with their original association with the moon. There are also calendars (such as the Muslim calendar) which are exclusively lunar-based, with months that are faithfully attuned to the phases of the moon. Twelve such months are regarded as a year, but these “years” bear no relation to the solar cycle (a given date in such a calendar will, in certain years, fall in the midst of summer and, in other years, in the dead of winter).
The Jewish calendar is unique in that it endeavors to reconcile the solar and lunar time-streams. By employing a complex 19-year cycle in which months alternate between 29 and 30 days and years vary between 12 and 13 months, the Jewish calendar sets its months by the moon and its years by the sun, combining lunar time and solar time into a single system while preserving the integrity of each.
For the sun and the moon represent the two sides of a dichotomy that divides virtually every aspect of our existence—a dichotomy whose differences we must respect and preserve even as we incorporate them in a cohesive approach to life.
Light And Darkness
On previous occasions, we have explored various aspects of the solar/lunar polarity: the contrast between the surety and consistency of tradition on the one hand, and the desire for flux, innovation, and creativity on the other; the male/female dynamic, which imbues us with the passion to give and bestow on the one hand, and the capacity to accept and receive on the other. On this occasion, we shall dwell on another aspect of this cosmic duality: the twinship of spirit and matter.
The spiritual and the material are often equated with light and darkness. Indeed, a number of religions and moral systems regard the spiritual as enlightened, virtuous, and desirable, and the physical-material side of life as belonging to the “forces of darkness.” The Torah, however, has a different conception of spirituality and materiality, a conception embodied by the solar/lunar model.
The sun is a luminous body while the moon is a dark lump of matter. Yet both are luminaries; both serve us as sources of light. The difference is that the sun’s light is self-generated, while the moon illuminates by receiving and reflecting the light of the sun.
Spirituality is a direct emission of Divine light. When studying Torah, praying, or performing a mitzvah, we are in direct contact with G‑d; we are manifestly revealing His truth in the world. But not every thought of man relates directly to the Divine wisdom; not every word we utter is a prayer; not every deed we perform is a mitzvah. G‑d created us as material creatures, compelled to devote a considerable part of our time and energies to the satisfaction of a multitude of material needs. By necessity and design, much of our life is “lunar,” comprising the nonluminous matter of material pursuits.
Nonluminous matter, however, need not mean an absence of light. It can be moonlike, serving as a conduit of light. It’s all a matter of positioning. The moon is positioned in such a way as to convey the light of the sun to places to which it cannot flow directly from its source. Placed in the proper context, the material involvements of life can serve as facilitators of Divine truth to places which, in and of themselves, are not in the “direct line” of spirituality and holiness. The proceeds of unavoidable overtime at the workplace can be translated into additional resources for charity; the unplanned trip to the mechanic can be the start of a new friendship and a positive influence on a fellow man.
A Complete Year
Our lives include both a solar and a lunar track: a course of spiritual achievement as well as a path of material endeavor. These orbits do not run in tandem; at times they clash, giving rise to dissonance and conflict. The simple solution would be to follow a single route, choosing an exclusively solar or exclusively lunar path through life. But the Jewish calendar does not avail itself of the simple solution.
Our calendar insists that we incorporate both systems in our time-trajectory: that we cultivate a solar self—thoughts and feelings, deeds and endeavors, moments and occasions of consummate holiness and spirituality; and that at the same time we also develop a lunar personality—a material life which reflects and projects our other, spiritual self.
This is also the lesson implicit in the 365-day duration of Noach’s Flood. The deluge of material concerns that threatens to overwhelm our lives can be mastered and sublimated. The Flood can be reconciled with the solar calendar and made part of a “complete year” in which lunar and solar time converge and the moon receives and conveys the light of the sun.
Based on the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe; adapted by Yanki Tauber. Courtesy of MeaningfulLife.com via Chabad.org. Find more Torah articles for the whole family at www.chabad.org/parshah.