Our times compel a search for wisdom, if not distraction. We survey the landscape of snarky-yet-telling memes and self help bromides. Eventually, when eyes weary of our umbilical, glowing beacons, we plumb the depths of more enduring traditions. Perhaps the most iconic account of global cataclysm, the Bible’s Flood Epic, comes readily to mind and heart in these strange days, less as facile fable of punishment for evil than as an embrace of catastrophe as opportunity.
Judaism’s take on this ancient, shared saga goes beyond the mythic hero’s journey or clash of deities reflected in other’s quest to find meaning in generation-defining events. The biblical response to God’s role in a moment of uncertainty and despair is to look forward, not in naïve optimism, but in the awareness that all things will pass. And yet, we can invest these passages with moral growth—drawing lessons from a crisis from which we are forever changed, ideally in ways that transcend mere endurance.
As we, too, seek comfort and purpose in our current struggle, this sacred and enduring tale offers critical insights to render suffering into solace, fear into faith, the wounds of the past into the promise of the future. Beyond the endless predictions perplexing us in our isolated and inundated cocoons of ennui, forecasting radical changes in health care, dire specters of economic carnage, and even greater threats to the electoral franchise, there are vital insights that hold out the possibility that the tragedy of this plague may be beaten into the triumph of the spirit.
Awash In New Perspective
The Flood was not an act of destruction as much as it was a re-creation, a cosmic do-over. The separation of the primordial waters of Creation’s Day 2 is reversed, as sky and sea meld into a bleak binary of elements, distinguishable only by the ceaseless horizon ebbing before Noah’s wooden capsule. He is the new Adam, and the living world is given a chance to begin again, tempered by harsh experience, empowered to reshape a new way forward.
So, too, does this challenge to our civilization bring the possibility of renewed perspective, reordered priorities, and a reaffirmation of first principles. Will the taken for granted become the newly valued—sparking a revitalized appreciation for the natural beauty that surrounds us beyond the four walls of our lockdowns, the nurturing network of friends and family now relegated to the Zoomisphere, and the miracles of the mundane that used to fill our days, now quieted by quarantine–the small yet stabilizing obligations that defined what is “normal?”
Bound by the Common
Flood and virus know no station, nor capaciousness of portfolio. The Grim Equalizer threatens and takes from us all. But perhaps through shared struggle comes more concerted bonds of wider community. Are we capable of forging the urgency of interdependence into lasting links of common purpose? Will we, like the emerging arkonauts, embrace the dawning of a new covenant of mutual care over the fraying social compact with which we entered our seclusion?
Toward A Greater Empathy
Jewish tradition drew 7 universal human laws from the renewed covenant forged between Noah and God on the drying land. Some pre-existed the rising waters, initiated in the Garden. Others came down later, through the exemplary lives of Abraham and Moses. But the most significant to arise after the Flood was humanness in our treatment of the animals we raise and consume. For if we could be scrupulous in our care for the “lesser” lives we take, how much more so would we be wary and deliberate in our regard for others of our kind.
Can the shared sacrifice of our freedoms and our fleeting desires endure without a unifying threat? Can we craft common purpose toward common cause into a proactive altruism—one in which we face dangers before they metastasize; see and plan for a future beyond self-interest, if only in loving regard for our grandchildren; and more fully live out the maxim that we must either rise together or fall apart? This need for empathy through time rather than in the space of the moment is perhaps the most difficult, and the most critical way in which we shape a crisis into something constructive. But in that challenge comes abundant reward, born of accepted responsibility.
The Promise of the Rainbow
The Noah story concludes with a lesson of hope and a promise-as-trial. God repurposes the extant rainbow into an assurance that the world will remain as it has become, left to the devices of humanity to either cultivate or denigrate. The later tradition adds another stripe to this symbolism: When a rainbow appears, it is to remind us of who we were in that moment of crisis, a potent antidote to our hard-wired amnesia of past tragedies and prior failures.
This pandemic will end in weeks or months, and life will return to a new, and hopefully more enlightened normal. Yet there will inevitably be other plagues, as sickness continues to mark us as individuals and nations. But perhaps out of our ability, together, to overcome the fragility of the physical, there will be an amplified, primal awareness of our vulnerability–the peril that both terrifies and thrills us as living beings endowed with a delicate, temporary, yet profound existence—the qualities that most make us human, yet instill in us an ineffable sense that we are gifted with a spark of what lies beyond.