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 G‑d want to wipe out all people He created in full knowledge that they would sin? Like it was a surprise for G‑d! G‑d, who exists above time, which He created, cannot be surprised—He knows the future. 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 hardwired 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 served as a metaphor for time in many cultures. 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 Meditations, “Time is a river, a violent current of events, glimpsed once and already carried past us, and another follows and is gone.” Leonardo da Vinci wrote, in his Notebooks, “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.” The Argentinian short story writer Jorge Luis Borges wrote, “Time is a river which sweeps me along, but I am the river.” Ursula Le Guin wrote, “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 the French composer Hector Berlioz  (1803–1869) wrote, Le temps est un grand maître, dit-on; le malheur est qu’il soit un maître inhumain qui tue ses élèves” (“Time is a great teacher, but unfortunately it kills all its pupils.”)[1]

One can only survive the turbulent waters of the deluge not by fighting the violent current, but rather by staying in the moment and letting the currents take you where they may.  As Christopher Morley, the American writer, wrote in his 1922 satirical novel Where the Blue Begins, “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.”

The Biblical account of the deluge provides further details to bolster our metaphor.

…all the fountains of the great deep broken up, and the windows of heaven were opened. (Genesis 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, the sefirah of Chokhmah (Partzuf Aba, i.e., the Supernal Father) represents the past (a “depth of beginning”), whereas the sefirah of Binah (Partzuf Ima, i.e., the Supernal Mother) represents the future (a “depth of end”).[2] It appears, therefore, that the Ark, floating between the waters swirling from below and the waters swirling from above, between future and past, represents the present.

That Noah and his family and all the animals survived the flood in the Ark suggests that one can live only in the present moment. Dreamers (like Goncharov’s Oblomov) who dream only about the future but never do anything about it in the present and others who are stuck in the past are swept away by the great waters of time. Only those who live in the present survive. The present moment, which is infinitesimally brief, is the portal to eternity, as Henry David Thoreau clearly recognized in Walden: “Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. . . . Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains.”

To take this metaphor to its logical end, the cessation of the flood, when the waters were wiped away from the face of the earth, may stand for the messianic time when “all death will be wiped away” forever, as the prophet said:

He will swallow up death for ever; and the Lord G‑d will wipe away tears from off all faces (Isaiah 25:8).




[1] Letter written by Berlioz in November 1856, published in Pierre Citron (ed.), Correspondance générale (Paris: Flammarion, 1989), vol. 5, p. 390.

[2] Sefer Yetzirah 1:5; English translation by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, Sefer Yetzirah (Samuel Weiser, 1990), p. 44.