One day, we will reach the end of this time. This odd, upended, other time. This mournful time. This time of trials.
We will reach it, and the lives we used to live will once again be possible.
There will be false starts at first, of course. There will be clinical trials that won’t lead anywhere, and treatments that won’t quite come together, and victorious press releases that will turn out to be embarrassing in hindsight. Like Noah’s raven, our hope will spread its wings but briefly. And then we’ll wait, again, but feel a little jaded, and a lot more wary of our hopes.
But wary or not, there will be other trials, and other experiments, and other scientific methods. And some will be somewhat successful, enough to give us a tangible olive branch of promise to hold on to. They will tell us that we are counting down in finite numbers, not merely floating in the vast unknown we got to know so well in 2020. And then a vaccine, or a treatment, will catch, and we will hit dry land. This ark-time will come to its end, and we’ll step out.
But the end of the ark-time won’t put an end to our trials.
For now, we linger in the ‘After’ of a clear Before and After rupture. Before, there were times with kids and times to work in, there were friends in parties, and food we passed across the Shabbat table, hand to hand to hand. Our fingers touched, and we were not afraid.
After, there are masks, and kids at home, and bone deep isolation. We see our friends on screens. We keep our fingers to ourselves.
But our ‘After’ will become “back when” once we will reach this flood’s true ending. And we will face a choice, for all we learned and lived through will be our own to use… or to discard. Will we plant the hard-won lessons of this time into our world-to-come, and grow new hopeful futures? Or will we try to leave it in the past, and to forget all that we saw, and did, and felt?
The second option doesn’t seem terrible from the outset, and it’s certainly understandable when the After is a place of so much trauma. But in this week’s Torah portion, Noah’s fate illuminates its hidden danger. It reveals the way it can diminish us, and short-change the outside world.
“Noah, the tiller of the soil, was the first to plant a vineyard,” we hear in Genesis 9:20. But one verse later Noah “drank of the wine and became drunk, and he uncovered himself within his tent.”
A few years and one verse are all that stand between Noah the farmer and Noah the drunk man. But what a difference in attitude, what a difference in stature, springs to life within this space! Noah the farmer shapes the world in positive ways, creating life and beauty and potential. Noah the drunk can’t shape larger reality; he can’t, in fact, even control himself. Tellingly, the difference between these Noahs doesn’t stem from sin or from malicious corruption. Noah doesn’t surrender to his generation’s rapacity; the change within him starts when, instead of making, he passively consumes.
On the day when we leave our current arks, we will face a variation on this choice and these alternatives. On that day, we’ll have the opportunity to start afresh, and maybe shape the world anew. Will we rise to the challenge, and use what we learned to make the post-flood world a better place? Or will we let this opportunity slip by and sink into the complacent comforts of ‘Before’, of a world that we accept as-is?
I pray for the day when we leave our arks behind, and share our lives again, and pass our love and food and care from hand to hand to hand. But I also pray that on that day we will carry with us our memories of all our trials, and be willing to use them like seeds of strength and growth.
May we remember the people who reached out, and our own surprising flexibility.
May we remember how much kindness mattered, and how humor helped.
May we remember good intentions, and what we learned about being compassionate in the face of our own failures.
May we remember just how much we needed friendship, and plant this knowledge in our post-flood world.