This is the d’var Torah I offered at my shul yesterday during Shabbat services. (Cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.)
“Postpartum depression caused the Flood…”
That’s the first line of the first poem in 70 faces (Phoenicia, 2011). It comes out of last week’s Torah portion, Bereshit — which begins with the creation of heavens and earth, and ends with God recognizing that humanity has become wicked, and vowing to wash us off the face of the earth. In this week’s Torah portion, Noach, we encounter the flood itself.
Many of you have heard me speak about the “four worlds:” action, emotion, thought, and spirit. In Jewish Renewal we frequently use this idea as a lens for understanding our lives. Sometimes, as in our Tu BiShvat seder, we map each of the four worlds to one of the four seasons, or to one of the four elements. The world of yetzirah, emotion, is represented by water.
Jung wrote that water is a symbol for the unconscious. In Tarot, water represents emotion and intuition. Think of the language we use to speak about strong emotion: emotion poured through me, my heart overflowed with feelings, emotion welled up in me. And, when it gets to be too much: I was afraid my emotions would wash me away. I was flooded with emotion.
The first lines of Torah teach that before creation, God’s spirit hovered over the face of the waters — maybe the waters of the unconscious, the waters of chaos, the waters of what-existed-before. Then God divided between the waters above and the waters below. Our ancestors believed that primordial waters flowed below the earth, and above the heavens; that everything we know and experience is surrounded by cosmic waters which we cannot see.
Before each of us is born, we inhabit a space of living waters — a mother’s womb. Waters above, waters below, waters sustaining us. When we are born, most of our bodies consist of water. Waters run through us and sustain us. Maybe that’s one of the deep truths reflected in Torah’s metaphors.
And in this week’s portion, God stops holding the waters back. The waters become too much. There is an excess of water. And everything that isn’t held safely in that little wooden boat is washed away.
For those who struggle with depression, there is often fear of emotional flood. “If I let myself really feel the depth of my sorrow, I will wash away.” Or: “If I let myself really feel the depth of my sorrow, I will wash away everyone I love.”
We need to trust that we, and our loved ones, can weather our storms. Like Noah, who builds a floating home which can survive even the greatest deluge.
Many years ago at a Shabbat service at the old Elat Chayyim, Rabbi Jeff Roth recounted the following parable. Two waves are hanging out together in the sea, a big wave and a little wave. And the big wave is anxious and scared. The little wave says, “Why are you so afraid?” And the big wave says, “If you could see what I see, you’d be afraid too. Up ahead of us there are some cliffs, and I can see where we’re going — every wave in front of us goes up to those cliffs, and smashes into them, and disappears.”
And the little wave smiles and says, “If you could see what I see, you wouldn’t be afraid.” And the big wave asks, what’s that? And the little wave says, “We’re not waves — we’re water.”
We’re not waves: we’re water. The essence of who we are is greater than our stormy weather, greater than the rising and falling of any wave or any tide or any life. We aren’t just our crests and troughs, our highs and lows. Even when an individual wave shatters on the shore, its water nature remains. Even when an individual life feels shattered — or comes to its end — what is eternal in us still flows.
When the floodgates open
build a boat with many spaces
here in these cubbyholes
stash your scales and feathers
pack provisions for the forty days
required for transformation
push off from the dock and set sail
for wherever the current carries you
don’t be surprised if you wobble
back across the gangplank
when you raise the partitions
you’ll run like new watercolor
offer yourself on the altar of stone
beneath the varicolored sky
(from 70 faces)