Call me crazy, but I still believe in moral progress over the long haul. Yes, the 20th century gave us Hitler and Stalin — but also worldwide revulsion against them. We no longer have bear-baiting, dueling, and gladiators fighting to the death. We still execute people, but not as public entertainment. We really have come a long way.
But we are equally subject to entropy, the backward slide of civilization into randomness. History writ large chronicles the conflict between order and disorder, and the inevitable role we humans play in deciding which one will prevail.
Therein lies the deeper message of our first three Torah readings.
Bereishit (the first) depicts creation: a perfectly designed garden, orderliness epitomized, except for the serpent and then exile into real life as we know it. The ensuing flood (in Noah, the second reading) is the opposite: the return to utter chaos. The third portion (Lech Lecha) introduces the Jewish people and its mission: the insistence on evolving upward to the destination of God’s choosing, not downward to the muck of entropic nothingness.
Out of “tohu vavohu,” a “shapeless wasteland,” entropy pure and absolute, we somehow get a patterned universe with laws of evolution, and humanity as evolution’s latest greatest leap.
Then comes the flood: a flood, note, not some other disaster, because “flood” symbolizes the descent into the prehistoric waters with which the world began. Noah is “everyone,” neither saint nor sinner, just you and me, struggling to stay afloat lest millions of evolutionary years count for nothing, because a single generation washes out the human climb from mud to mountain peak.
When the rain ends, Noah dispatches an orev (raven) and a yonah (dove), symbolic choices, because birds fly, they are not dragged down; they perch on mountain tops, heralding hope beyond the horizon. Only the yonah succeeds, however, and becomes ever after an underlying Jewish metaphor of moment.
It reappears in Song of Songs 2:14: “My dove [my yonah], in the crags of the rocks.” The yonah, says the Tosafot, is symbolic of Israel, waiting, like Moses, in the crags of Mt. Sinai to hear God’s voice. On this reading, it is not just any old yonah that Noah summons; it is the Jewish people, the subject of third Torah portion (Lech Lecha), the story of Abraham and Sarah.
Where does Abraham build his first altar? He no sooner arrives in Canaan when he moves on “to the mountain” (“haharah,” v. 12:8) and builds it there. Again, a mountain, the destination of Noah’s yonah and the moral heights to which humanity must evolve. He went there, Rashi says, because he had just been promised a host of descendants, the Jewish people, continuing through time. Why does Jewish continuity matter, if not because it is our lot to be a yonah, a dove, soaring ever upward in the rockiness of time to hear God’s voice? The Jewish people is the eternal dove of history.
With utter brilliance, the Bible provides yet another yonah, this time the prophet “Jonah” (in English). The flood generation is recycled as the sinning Ninevites, with this second yonah given the choice of flying off to do his duty or resisting it. When he resists, he is submerged in watery chaos just like the generation of the flood, but inside a fish that spews him out on dry land to give him a second chance. When he agrees to do God’s will, hard as it may be, he fulfills the promise of his name, “Jonah” — yonah, the quintessential Jew, reminding humanity of its ultimate choice: to further evolution’s upward spiral or let the whole human enterprise collapse into entropic disaster.
That choice stares us in the face today. Dignity or degradation, blessing or curse, harmony or hatred? Do we retreat into selfish self-destructiveness like the generation of the flood? It is the task of the yonah, the Jewish people, to believe in progress and reach for the mountains.
Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman is cofounder of Synagogue 3000 and a professor of liturgy, worship, and ritual at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.