Noah, Jonah, Upon The Waters


The story of Noah reminds us of how far humanity has come from the days when we were crawly creatures emerging from the water, and how easy it is to slip back to where it all began. Noah’s generation does just that. It is evil incarnate. Almost sub-human, they saturate the earth with violence. Left to sink into the mud, the flood returns the world to its primeval origins.

Critics who demand that the narrative of the flood be literally true miss the point. The Bible captures eternal truths less through history than through stories, and this story’s message is the need to persevere in our evolutionary climb to moral maturity. At one extreme (still a whole book away) there is Sinai, the symbolic pinnacle of our moral climb upward. At the other, there is Noah’s generation, dragging the world down to disaster. In between, there is Noah, who is everyman and everywoman, mostly moral, but hardly a saint, precariously afloat in the Ark, just a fraction short of going under.

Noah personifies the human struggle to resist the undertow of evil lest a single generation wash out every trace of the human climb and steady evolution counts for nothing.

At the end of the story, Noah dispatches a dove (“yonah”) to find land. The dove is symbolic, for birds fly. They herald hope beyond the visible horizon. They remind us, the ordinary Noahs of the world, that we need not sink back into the sea.

The same symbolism recurs later in the prophet Yonah (Jonah), Noah revisited. He, too, inhabits a storm-tossed ship that threatens to spill its human cargo into nothingness. He, too, faces evil: the people of Nineveh. But Noah, too, is only human, hesitant to fulfill his moral promise, to the point of being swallowed by a fish that drags him ever lower into the very depths of the sea from where humans first evolved. As if replicating human evolution, the fish spits him onto dry land, insisting that Jonah fulfill his human mission. “Humanity” is a moral category, not just an anthropological one. If we lose our moral center, we lose being human.

Yonah the bird, and Yonah the man, are metaphors also, the Rabbis say, for Israel, who is charged with the struggle to retain that moral center. The case of the prophet is explicit: When the sailors ask his identity, Jonah says, “Ivri anochi” (“I am a Hebrew”) [Jonah 1:9]. As for Noah’s dove, the Tosafot tell us, “The dove is Israel,” and for proof, direct us to The Song of Songs 2:14: “My dove, in the crags of the rocks.”

The dove in The Song of Songs, they say, is Israel, waiting in the rocks of the mountains to hear God’s voice. Mountains, mind you, the metaphoric moral peak that humans must climb. Noah’s dove, the idealized Israel in metaphoric form, flies off in search of an echo of God, a rumor that evil can be overcome and that life persists beyond it.

Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat candles: 5:30 p.m.
Torah: Genesis 6:9-11:32
Haftarah: Isaiah 54:1-55:5
Havdalah: 6:29 p.m. 

Jews divide the Bible into three constituent sections: Torah, Nevi’im (Prophets) and Ketuvim (Writings). All three units remind us of the centrality of the yonah, the dove of moral hope. The story of Noah is in Torah, Jonah is a prophet, and the Song of Songs comes from Writings.

Once upon a time, the Israelites left Egypt for Sinai and became a yonah, a dove perched high in the mountain crags to hear God’s moral voice. Sometimes (like Jonah) we evade our charge, and relapse into the primal waters where we began. But sometimes, too, we manage to be Noah’s yonah, the dove that strives to fly higher, there to confirm the news of a better moral day. n

Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, co-founder of Synagogue 3000, and professor of liturgy, worship and ritual at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, is the author of “My People’s Prayer Book: Traditional Prayers, Modern Commentaries” (Jewish Lights), winner of the National Jewish Book Award.