Friends, as I write this message in late July, it is already about the rainiest July on record. That may be why I have been thinking a lot about Noah! Remember the story of Noah and the Ark? Imagine the joy that Noah and his family felt when the dove he had sent forth returned with an olive branch. That image – the sprig with its verdant leaves in the beak of the white dove – has several meanings. The one which strikes me now is the idea that the olive branch is a symbol of hope and renewal.
When Noah saw the olive branch in the bird’s beak, he regarded it as a sign that life would thrive again. He and the noisy throng of animals would soon depart that crowded boat! Relief was nearly in sight. Noah knew that if the dove brought an olive branch, there were trees somewhere on dry land and thriving again. So, Noah felt hopeful joy in anticipating that soon the flood waters would recede enough for all of his charges, from zebras to alligators, sheep to dogs to kittens, to walk again on dry land.
The end of the journey would come soon – but not right away. There was still a time of waiting. Noah would still have to wait for the floodwaters to recede and for the earth to become ready to sustain him and all animal life. Only when the dove went out again and did not return could Noah know that there was indeed enough dry land to walk and to rebuild life on earth.
In this stage of the Corona pandemic, we may be in a situation similar to that of Noah after months at sea with the animals. There is much progress, especially in our neck of the woods. We can see the olive branch, but we are not yet on dry land. We believe there is hope for us and our world – vaccines and public health measures have shown us a future in which we can return to normal life. We are confident that we will again thrive as we did before.
But we are not there yet! Still, we believe that, with attentiveness and faith, with responsible action and wise planning, we may soon reach that continent of reconstituted life.
Rosh Hashanah 5782 offers us a time to reflect on our resilience, to give thanks for having reached yet another sacred time, another year of infinite possibility. We are grateful for our families and our friends, for the caregivers and healers, the first responders, the ordinary workers who have provided extraordinary service to us during the crisis, bringing us food and keeping the machinery of life and livelihood functioning.
These High Holidays are meant to give us time to take stock of our responsibility to bring healing to others, to care for our Earth, to rethink our commitment to fairness and justice, to inclusiveness and sustainability in all spheres of our personal, communal, national, and global existence. Events of the past two years have heightened our awareness of many problems that have shaken our society and the world. In addition to coronavirus, we have had to confront the effects of global warming, the refugee crises, racial inequity and violence, political conflict, a plague of misinformation, and increasing pollution.
We have much to reflect upon, and much work that we need to do. Rosh Hashanah and the Days of Awe provide us with an opportunity to reflect on our responsibility to our world and other people. It is a time to ask ourselves the most fundamental questions, questions that often get pushed aside as we deal with our daily lives and responsibilities.
We don’t know why the Torah was written – but I like to think that the Torah points toward an answer to the most important questions of all: Why are we here? What is the purpose of human life? Rather than give one answer, the Torah gives many, multiplied manyfold by interpretation and commentary. Some of my favorite answers involve God telling us that we are meant to be the caretakers of the Earth – God’s helpers in maintaining and protecting His creative work. Tradition tells us that we were created last among the animals because we are God’s crowning achievement.
Lest we get too big for our britches and think we can exploit the Earth without consequence, tradition also provides a second interpretation: We were created last to remind us that even the lowly worms and bacteria were created before us. Maybe we are even an afterthought. In that case, we really need to work hard to prove our worth! Taking together, the two interpretations help us to seek our proper role in the scheme of creation.
In this New Year 5782, may we seek to remember our place in the created world. May we not be so self-centered that we think only of our own comfort and privilege, and may we be confident enough to take on the hard tasks of healing and protecting the world around us. May we seek to be God’s eyes and heart, ears and hands in maintaining and repairing creation. May we honor and appreciate the abilities and power we have to effect positive change in the world. May we live with hope and courage, patience and passion in this New Year, and may we bring healing and blessing to our world.
L’Shana Tova Tikatevu ve-Techatemu!
May you already be inscribed for sweetness and blessing in the Book of Life in this New Year!
Rabbi David Kudan is the spiritual leader of Temple Tiferet Shalom in Peabody.