Fighting Chaos

I keep thinking about the hurricane season that passed, because for a lot of the victims of those terrible catastrophes, the nightmare is far from over. After I continue to send funds to those who need, I try to understand these events. And I think about the story of the ancient Flood and how Noah survived: “In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, in the second month, the seventeenth day of the month, the same day were all the fountains of the great deep broken up, and the windows of heaven were opened” (Genesis 7:11).

Modern science teaches that the world is made of tiny particles called atoms that combine into molecules. But the ancient Greeks taught that the world was made of four fundamental elements - earth, water, air, and fire. Other ancient peoples in Egypt, India, and China came up with similar ideas.

According to ancient teachings, these elements combine in various combinations to create everything that exists. For example, Aristotle taught that hot things are a combination of fire and air. Cold things are a combination of water and earth. Dry things are a combination of fire and earth. Wet things are a combination of air and water. Aristotle taught that there was a fifth more spiritual substance called ether or quintessence. Obviously, this falls far short of modern science, but this mythical picture can give us insights about reality.

To make a universe, G-d had to gain control of each of these four fundamental elements. Without G-d’s intervention, each of the elements would turn chaotic and go out of control. In truth, this image of G-d controlling chaos is probably closer to the Biblical meaning of Genesis than G-d’s creation from nothing. Most explicit is the image of G-d bringing the waters under control. The Bible speaks of G-d hovering over the water, and then separating the upper from the lower
waters. In the book of Job, G-d 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” (Job 38:11). G-d tames the waters, bringing the wildness of water under control.

In recent months, chaos has reigned for each of these four elements. Earth became chaotic: ask the people of Mexico City. Water became chaotic: ask the people of Houston. Air in the form of wind became chaotic: ask the people of Puerto Rico. And in California, fire became chaotic.

It is almost like G-d stepped back and let chaos reign. This is precisely what the Bible says happened in the days of Noah. G-d did not cause the great flood. G-d 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.

G-d’s job is to overcome forces of chaos. Sometimes it seems that G-d steps back and let’s chaos reign once again. In Noah’s time humanity was not worthy and so the floodwaters came.

Our job as human beings is to become G-d’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 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 can do it with compassion, helping each other face these inevitable chaotic events.

The story of Noah is the story of an imperfect humanity, acting with cruelty towards one another. It is also a story of arrogance, building a tower to make a name for ourselves and challenge G-d. Today, our story must be one of becoming G-d’s partners, fighting the forces of chaos to bring order and tranquility to the world.

Rabbi Scolnic

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