The story of Noah and the image of the dove remind us of the importance of hope in the midst of tragedy. How much the more so do we rely on hope during the normal course of our lives, in the valleys of our troubled times, endeavoring to remember that there is much around us to remind us of the world's beauty and our sacred purpose within it.
An Uncertain but Necessary Hope
The story of the flood is a mixture of chaos and survival, of turbulence and hope. Surrounded on all sides by a human society bent on evil and charged with the essential duty of harboring the roots from which a reborn world will spring, Noah and his family embark on a journey whose end cannot be known but whose importance, as well, cannot be ignored. This small band of caregivers witness unimaginable destruction, and yet they dedicate themselves to the singular task of preservation and rebirth.
Imagine their state of mind during the deluge and the months of voyaging that followed. They see the world as they know it come to an end, and they face the unavoidable certainty that they alone will shape the ensuing course of human history. How full of doubt they must have been, and how full of aspiration!
“Who am I to attempt such a mission?” each might ask in the quietude of their heart. “And yet, chosen by God, must I not have something of lasting value to share with the world? Can I successfully pass on the traditions I believe in, or will those sacred values pale in the face of my flaws and limitations? God created the world once before; perhaps it should be God who starts it over, not me. But am I not created in God’s image for just such a purpose?” A pendulum of certitude and doubt, eating away at these few members of Noah’s family, asking themselves day by day, “Can we really make the difference we are called on to achieve?”
And then “in the tenth month, on the first day of the month, the tops of the mountains were seen” (Gen. 8:5), and forty days later, when the water appeared to have dried up, “[Noah] sent forth a dove from him, to see if the waters were abated from off the face of the ground” (Gen. 8:8).
What must have been going through his mind? What emotions were surging beneath the surface as he anticipated the bird’s return? And what did he feel when the dove came back, olive branch in its mouth, signaling the possibility of new life on devastated earth?
Of course, we can never truly know. The text is characteristically silent about its characters’ thoughts and feelings. But I like to imagine that the sight of those white plumes inspired in Noah a sense of hope. Hope that the wickedness of his generation could be overcome and that the innocence of the animals under his care could make possible a future peace in which, once again, the lion would lie down with the lamb.
The dove flies off to make its home, and Noah and his family shepherd the animals to dry land. The rainbow establishes God’s promise “never again to destroy every living thing” (Gen. 8:21), and the world begins anew. This new First Family are fruitful and multiply and fill the earth, bequeathing to generations hence the lessons of their most harrowing time.
And throughout the generations, our people have stewarded this mythic tale, bearing witness both to the dystopian fear of annihilation as well as to the eternal possibility of restoration after ruin. At times, we draw from the cautionary moral of the story, seeking wisely to oppose evil and to protect the earth. And at other times, we focus on its optimism, recalling the legacy of the dove and its message of hope for a brighter tomorrow.
A friend of mine recently posted online, with the sarcastic wit endowed to Facebook’s most effective users, something like, “It’s a sign of the times that I look to my kids to find a few moments of peace.” Taking the half-joke full-on, I started to consider what brings me hope, and I asked my own Facebook friends what they think. Freedom, one says, and grandchildren. A smiling child and the right to vote. The passage of time and the dawning of a new day.
And so I’d like to ask you here as well: What gives you hope? Take a moment to consider the question for yourself, and then share with one or two people sitting close by. When we’re all done, we’ll take invite a few comments for the group.
In today’s world of hunger and war, of political strife and actual, real-life floods, we may be tempted to see ourselves in Noah’s shoes, as plunged into dark navigation of civilization’s end. At such times, however, it is especially important to remember the dove, not in order to conjure a false expectation that “everything is going to be okay” but rather to summon the courage to envision a better world, made richer through the work of our own hands. Noah doesn’t know what will come next, but when he releases the dove, he does so while holding fast to hope.
May we find moments in our Shabbat rest and our prayer to remember the symbols and promises of hope in our own lives, finding the strength to trust in them that, in time, we can weather the storm together.
“To be effective, the preacher's message must be alive; it must alarm, arouse, challenge; it must be God's present voice to a particular people.”