Sunday, October 24, 2021

Planet Earth is covered with boundless water and no dry land is visible. No terrestrial creatures can inhabit this watery chaos. Birds circle overhead. Finally, the waters retreat, and life can commence. This scene depicts the original creation of our planet. Everything was covered by a watery void until Hashem retracted the watery abyss. But this scene also portrays the conclusion of the flood. Life for Noach and his family could only be restarted once the waters receded and the land dried. Noach’s exit from the ark parallels the initial creation of Bereishit. The world is being born anew—hopefully with better results.

Though the two stories are similar, there is one major difference: On the third day of creation, Hashem ordered the waters to contract into specifically designed ocean regions. Powerfully, the sprawling waters rushed across sweeping continents headlong for their ocean beds. This sudden and violent rush of waters sculpted the earth: river-beds carved out canyons, while ferocious torrents of water chiseled cliffs and mountains from solid rock. Rapidly and relentlessly, the waters coursed across landmasses obeying divine command.

By contrast, the waters of the flood withdrew slowly and gradually. After 190 days, the anxious waters quieted, but only 17 days later did Noach’s ship finally settle upon a mountain peak. About a month and half later, most tall mountain summits peeked through the water. All this was unbeknown to Noach who was still too frightened to even open a small latch to inspect the scene. A full 40 days later, Noach finally opened a window, launching his birds to gather intel about his swamped planet. This peculiar tale of two birds is showcased by the Torah to highlight the difference between the rapid retreat of the waters in Bereishit and the gradual and staged ebbing of the waters of Noach. This strange “ballet of birds” symbolizes Noach’s struggle to predict the future of a volatile world.

Noach had experienced an apocalyptic nightmare, witnessing both the devastation of an entire planet as well as the annihilation of the entire human and animal population. For months, traumatized and cloistered within his dark and damp lifeboat, he dared not open a window to the surrounding madness. Finally, summoning the courage to open a window, he sought a small degree of certainty. Perhaps by dispatching bird messengers, he could assess the rate of water recession and plan his date of disembarkation. Perhaps the birds could help him calculate the trajectory of the flood, assisting him in planning the end of his unbearable quarantine. Noach, frightened by the mayhem and chaos of the planetary upheaval, desperately wants a schedule or an itinerary. Perhaps his birds could provide a general timeline for the future. Unfortunately, his great hopes would be dashed.

Sadly, his project met with mixed results. The raven—his first agent—provided absolutely no relevant information. It is unclear whether this shadowy messenger was even willing to accept the frightening mission of flying away from the safety of the ark. It hovered near the ark, swooping toward and soaring away, worried by the watery uncertainty. Switching to a dove, Noach assumed that its “homing instincts” would enable it to travel greater distances buoyed by the confidence that it could trace its way back home. The first “dove mission” ended in complete failure as the bird returned empty-beaked. Even the second “dove mission” wasn’t a resounding success. The olive twig informed Noach of something that had already transpired three months earlier. Only at this stage in mid-Elul does Noach ascertain that the waters had “eased.” The Torah already informed us that the waters had soothed in early Sivan! Noach is behind the curve, discovering events months after they occurred.

The third and final mission of the dove also provides vague information. The dove doesn’t return: Did the dove discover a nest or did it drown from the weariness of a third straight flight? We may know the answer to this question, but did Noach? Even if the dove had found a stable nesting area, how long would it take for the waters to completely disappear? Additionally, how long would it take for the earth to dry and for the land to once again be inhabitable? After four different attempts to predict the date of his exit from the ark, Noach is still clueless!! His birds have supplied scant information. What little information has been provided is outdated!

With great irony, the Torah announces the complete vanishing of the waters: on Rosh Hashanah, the very day of the inconclusive third mission of the dove. Noach received no prior information of this long-awaited event. Despite his great efforts he was unable to gather any info about the rate of water recession nor about the drying-out period. Finally, close to two months later the ground completely dries and he exits the ark. All of Noach’s efforts to predict the conclusion of the flood are futile. Even though the flood waters ebbed gradually, the pace couldn’t be accurately gauged. Even Noach’s birds, who can hover above the muddy waters, can’t help him gaze beyond the horizon.

Human beings crave certainty in life. Living in a haphazard world can be terrifying. Ancient man lived in a completely random and unpredictable world, at the complete mercy of undetectable and puzzling phenomena. Over the centuries, science equipped us with knowledge and tools to organize our world and stabilize our condition by predicting nature. We successfully converted a world of fluke and serendipity into an organized “cosmos” driven by rational and predictable systems. Science doesn’t just enable analysis and investigation. By understanding our world, we can exploit its potential and improve the human condition.

Statistics has taken predictability one step further: not only can inanimate nature be predicted, but also human behavior, which appears to be personal and random, can be charted. Predictive algorithms about human behavior helps us “conduct” our world by engineering financial markets, city planning, public health administration and numerous other arenas of human experience.

However, human experience at its core remains delicate and unpredictable. The past two years have exposed this unchanging reality: All expectations and predictions failed to foretell this pandemic and its repercussions. Society mobilized to conquer this virus, but even our best predictions were debunked by mutations, variants, anti-vaxxers and multiple other unforeseen factors. We have all been re-conditioned to live our lives with a higher degree of uncertainty.

Religious-minded people aren’t terrified by uncertainty. Our one abiding certainty is our faith in God and our confidence in his care for humanity. If anything, uncertainty about human predictive models and human conventions spotlights the only actual certainty of life: our faith and our relationship with Hashem.

The writer is a rabbi at Yeshivat Har Etzion/Gush, a hesder yeshiva. He has semicha and a BA in computer science from Yeshiva University as well as a master’s degree in English literature from the City University of New York.

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