Science teaches that the world is made of tiny particles called atoms which combine into molecules and form various substances that make up the universe. The Midrash (Rabba Bamid. 14:12) and the Zohar (in many places)—as well as the ancient Greeks —taught that the world was made of 4 fundamental elements: earth, water, air, and fire. According to ancient teachings, these elements—like atoms—combine in various combinations to create everything that exists. Obviously, this falls far short of modern science, but it does have something to teach us.
For example, Aristotle taught that in order to make a universe, Gd had to gain control of each of these 4 fundamental elements, which is very similar to the Biblical account. Without Gd’s intervention, each of the elements would turn chaotic and go out of control. And so the Torah (Gen. 1:2-9) tells us about Gd bringing the waters under control when it said: “Gd hovered over the waters…separating the upper from the lower waters…and gathered the waters together (gave water the property of cohesion” where it domes on the top of a glass).” This unique property of water allowed the dry land to appear.
In the book of Job (38:11), Gd speaks to the oceans of the world with these words, “Thus far shall you come, but no further; and here shall your proud waves be stayed.” Gd tames the waters, bringing the wildness of water under control.
Recently, chaos has reigned for each of these 4 elements in our world. The element earth became chaotic—just ask the people of Mexico City with their earthquakes. The element water became chaotic—just ask the people of Houston with their floods from Hurricane Harvey. The element air in the form of wind became chaotic—just ask the people of Puerto Rico with Hurricane Maria. And of course this past week, the element fire became chaotic—ask the people of formerly beautiful Santa Rosa, California with its wild fires. It’s almost like Gd stepped back and let chaos reign. This is precisely what the Torah says happened in the days of Noah. Gd did not directly cause the great flood. Gd stopped holding the waters back and let the waters above co-mingle once again with the waters below.
The forces of chaos are natural forces in the world. In fact, we have a name for them—entropy. Entropy teaches, to quote the great poet William Butler Yeats in The Second Coming: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” Gd’s job is to overcome forces of chaos. Sometimes it seems that Gd steps back and lets chaos reign once again. In Noah’s time humanity was not worthy and so Gd allowed the flood waters to form.
Our job as human beings is to become Gd’s partners in overcoming chaos. We must react to the horrible earthquakes and tsunamis, hurricanes and fires, with a question: what can we do to overcome the chaos? How can we help bring order into the world? We can do it with our technology, finding better ways for buildings to withstand natural forces and learning to predict such chaotic events. We must do it also with compassion—helping each other face these inevitable chaotic events. And we can do it by realizing that the world is not perfect, and our job is to perfect it as much as we can as a kingdom of Gd.
The story of Noah in Today’s Torah reading is the story of an imperfect humanity, acting with cruelty towards one another—and hence the flood. It’s also a story after the flood of arrogance—building a tower to make a name for themselves and challenge Gd. Today, our story when entropy strikes and one of the 4 basic elements goes out of control—must be one of becoming Gd’s partners, fighting the forces of chaos with our minds and our hearts to bring order and tranquility to the world. Amen!