Noach: The Ark of Speech

Daily Insight #3

God commanded Noah to build an ark within which he, his family, and all living beings would be saved from the flood:

Make for yourself an ark of gopher wood…. And this [is the size] you shall make it: three hundred cubits the length of the ark, fifty cubits its width, and thirty cubits its height.1

“Ark” (תבה ) in Hebrew also means “a word.” Our teacher, the holy Ba’al Shem Tov, stressed time and again, that as an enduring spiritual lesson, the construction of Noah’s ark instructs us on the proper way to construct the words that we speak, specifically, but not limited to, when we pray before the Almighty2 and say words of Torah. The most important instruction of all, explained the Ba’al Shem Tov, is that just as Noah was instructed to “go into the ark,”3 so we too must “go into” our words, that is invest our whole self in every word that we utter.

All the powers of the soul have to shine and energize from within every word of holiness that is uttered, a secret that is alluded to in the verse: “Who is she that ascends from the desert.”4“Who is she” symbolizes the spiritual union between the sefirot of understanding and kingdom, i.e., the construction with all powers of the soul (carried out by the sefirah of understanding) of every spoken word (the sefirah of kingdom). All this so that one may “ascend from the desert,” from mundane reality and become one with God Himself.5 In Hebrew, the word “desert,” מדבר , stems from the same grammatical root as the word for “speech,” דבור . Thus, we learn that the ascent from the desert is through the means of rectified speech.

The dimensions of the ark

Now, let us translate the dimensions of the ark, as given in the Torah, into their corresponding letters:

  • 300 cubits length – ש
  • 50 cubits width – נ
  • 30 cubits height – ל

We get the three letters that spell לָשֹן , the Hebrew word for “tongue!” This is a beautiful illustration of how everything regarding the ark is indeed related to speech. More specifically, this finding teaches us that an important component contributing to the energy contained within our words is that of guarding the tongue (שמירת הלשון ), the Hebrew idiom referring to refraining from improper speech. In fact, the ability to guard one’s tongue is a safeguard able to protect a person from being swept away by the deluge waters that seek to destroy mankind, the species of speakers, as we are known in Jewish philosophy.

The development of spatial cognition

The order of the three dimensions of the ark in the word לָשֹן , “tongue,” reflects the order in which a child’s spatial cognition develops. The first dimension that the child gains a cognitive appreciation for is height, perhaps because the baby spends its first few months lying down. The height of the ark was 30 cubits, the  לof לָשֹן . The second dimension recognized is length, which the child begins to grasp once it can crawl and move around. The length of the ark was 300 cubits, the  שof לָשֹן . The last dimension (which for many people never fully integrates) is width, which represents the space between left and right, and morally the difference between right and wrong. The width of the ark was 50 cubits, the  ןof לָשֹן .

Simple letter filling

In yesterday’s article we used the concept of letter filling. Other than the full filling of each letter in Hebrew, there is the simple filling—a short, two-letter filling, which based on various grammatical rules, captures the essence of the complete filling. The simple filling of the first word of the Torah, בראשית , is:

ב – בי (in Aramaic בי literally means “house,” the meaning of the full filling of ב )
ר – רש
א – אל
ש – שן
י – יד
ת – תו

Now if we add the additional letters of the simple filling together, י ש ל ן ד ו , we get the two words יד לשון , which mean “the hand of the tongue,” an idiom that appears in the Bible in the verse: “Death and life are in the hand of the tongue.” The gematria of יד לשון = 400, the numerical value of the letter ת , the final and concluding letter of the alphabet and the final letter of בראשית . The gematria of בראשית יד לשון is 1313, the numerical value of תחית המתים , the “resurrection of the dead,” alluding to how indeed, “Death and life [first death and then life, resurrection] are in the hand of the tongue.”

Vessels and lights

All that we have covered in today’s teaching goes back to the advice of King David: “He who desires life, who loves days in which the good can be seen: Guard your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking lies.”6

But so far, we have examined only the dimensions of the ark. Dimensions are needed to construct the vessel. But infusing the vessel with light is an entirely different matter. Many people are confused by what the difference between Kabbalah and Chassidut is. If Chassidut is entirely based on Kabbalah, what is its new message? What did the Ba’al Shem Tov reveal that was not taught in Kabbalah? The simplest answer is that Kabbalah focuses on the spiritual vessels, more explicitly: the construction, shattering, and repairing of vessels, whereas Chassidut focuses on infusing the vessels with the light of the Divine. Relatively, Kabbalah deals with the external, technical aspects of the spiritual realm, whereas Chassidut concentrates on the inner workings of the spiritual realm, which find their expression most strongly in the soul.

Since man is a microcosm of the universe, spiritually as well as physically, every aspect of our humanity has both external and inner mechanisms. For instance, looking at the mind, the external mechanism is our ability to think. But, the inner mechanism of the mind is understanding. Understanding is achieved when you can do more than simply repeat what you have been taught; you can add new, original thoughts that were not taught explicitly.7

The same is true for speech. Speech has both external and inner aspects to it. The ability to utter words, be they as holy as they might be is only the external aspect. Even the most secret Names of God found in the deepest teachings of Kabbalah still represent only the external aspect of man’s capacity to utter words. The inner aspect of speech is infused into words by energizing it with all the powers of the soul, to the point where, like Moshe Rabbeinu speaking the book of Deuteronomy, the Divine Presence speaks from one’s throat.

The Rebbe Moharash, the fourth Rebbe of Chabad, once described his daily regiment of study. He called his study of Etz Chayim (the foundational volume of the Arizal’s Kabbalah) his lesson in ethics (musar). He referred to his study of Kabbalah as ethics because the foundation of the Arizal’s Etz Chayim is the formation, shattering, and repairing of the vessels. In practice these vessels are the vessels of one’s heart and one’s behavior, the two aspects of man that need to be rectified in order to behave ethically. But, to the rectified vessels, one has to add light, or consciousness—one of the translations of da’at (דעת ), the Hebrew word for the sefirah of knowledge. It is to the addition of light, of consciousness, of the complete power of the soul that King David refers in the next verse: “Refrain from evil and do good.”8 Good refers to consciousness, as in the verse: “Even a life without knowledge [consciousness, as above] is not good.”

It is the infusing of light into the rectified vessel that is the essential aim of Chassidut achieved through its study. Indeed, the infusion of light into rectified vessels is the secret of the resurrection of the dead.

1. Genesis 6:14-15.

2. The Ba’al Shem Tov’s teachings on prayer were collected by his students and published together in a short work called Amud Hatefilah (The Pillar of Prayer). This collection was added to the popular Ba’al Shem Tov on the Torah. You can find translations of some of these teachings at:

3. Ibid. 7:1.

4. Song of Songs 3:9.

5Zohar I, 217b. In Hebrew this idiom is: לאשתאבא בגופא דמלכא , literally “to be sucked into the King Himself.”

6. Psalms 34:13-14.

7. The sages called this “understanding a thing, from within another thing,” מבין דבר מתוך דבר .

8. Psalms 34:15.

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