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A Box of Life: The Meaning of the Teivah

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On that day, all wellsprings of the great abyss burst forth, and the windows of the heaven opened.

And Noah… entered the teivah, in refuge from the waters of the flood…

Genesis 7:11, 7

The literal meaning of the Hebrew word teivah is “container” or “box.” The teivah of the above-quoted verses is the floating ark which Noah constructed, at G-d’s behest, to shelter him and his family for the twelve months that the waters of the flood ravaged the face of earth.

Teivah also means “word.” Words are containers: they package ideas, feelings, sentiments and convictions. They house personalities, movements and communities, delineating their aims, defining their raison d’être.

Therein lies the eternal relevance of G-d’s command to Noah, “Enter into the teivah.” [1] When the abyss of earth overwhelms you with the burdens of material life; when the windows of heaven open to deluge you with spiritual ills; enter the teivah. Enter the word—there you will find refuge from the floodwaters of life.

Upon waking each morning, we envelop ourselves in words. “Modeh ani lefanecha…,” we say, “I offer thanks to You, living and eternal King, for restoring my soul to me…”

These first words of the Jewish day are followed by many more words—words of prayer, words of Torah—that amplify the profound particulars of the simple, potent truth the words of the Modeh Ani contain: that G-d is the exclusive source and objective of our life, and that each morning He restores our soul to us newly fortified to meet its every challenge. Nestled in this knowledge, we are insulated from the currents of fear, doubt and despair that threaten to overwhelm the teivah-less swimmer through life.

In and Out

The teivah, however, is more than a sanctum: it also holds the seeds of a post-Flood world. Noah was commanded to enter the teivah together with his extended family (“you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives”) and to gather into it specimens of every living creature (“and of every living thing of all flesh, two of each, male and female… and from every edible food… to keep seed alive upon earth”).[2] Then, when the waters of the flood subsided, G-d commanded him to exit the teivah and recreate a world from the micro-universe he had assembled inside the teivah’s walls.

In the same vein, the teivah we create is not to remain a personal ark. We are to invite our ‘‘families’’–all fellow human beings to whom our influence extends[3]–into the words of sanctity and purpose with which we navigate the hazards of material life. Furthermore, our teivahs are to embrace also the non-human elements of our environment: every time we enlist one of the resources and forces of our world for a G-dly end, we make it part of the tranquil universe-in-miniature sanctified by the words of Torah and prayer. The bread and meat that provide the energy for prayer, the paper and ink that facilitate our Torah study, the resources and talents that earn the money given to charity—these are the “specimens” rescued from the flood of mundanity and brought into the sanctity of the divine words in which we enwrap our lives.

The divine call, “Enter the teivah” is followed by the command, “Come out of the teivah.”[4]

Having created an island of G-dliness in a mundane world, we are enjoined to transplant it outside the walls of our teivah. The inviolable hour of prayer in the morning should have a sanctifying effect on the business day that follows; the hour of Torah study should pervade our round-the-clock thought process and decision making; the dollars given to charity should influence the way in which we regard all our property and wealth. And ultimately, the private and communal sanctity of our teivah-contexted lives should translate into the universal harmony and perfection of  a world “flooded” in the positive sense—a world that is “filled with the knowledge of G-d as the waters submerge the sea.” [5]

Based on the Rebbe’s talks, Tishrei 24, 5717 (September 29, 1956)[6] and on other occasions.

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[1] Genesis 7:1

[2] Ibid., 6:18-21; 7:3.

[3] Cf. Sifri on Deuteronomy 6:7: “Your disciples are ‘your children.’ ’’

[4] Genesis 8:16.

[5] Isaiah 11:9.

[6] Likkutei Sichot, vol. I, pp. 4-11.

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