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Like Noah, waiting for signs it's OK to leave our pandemic ark

By Rebecca Reice
Special to the American-Statesman
Rabbi Rebecca Reice serves as the senior rabbi of Congregation Shir Ami in Cedar Park.

The Torah portion for October 9, 2021 was Parashat Noach (Genesis 6:9-11:32). It was the portion of the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) which I read 25 years ago at my bat mitzvah (the celebration for a 13-year-old girl).

Every year I return to it, I see something slightly or even radically different.

In studying this Torah portion this year, I realized that I, like many of us, am metaphorically trying to figure out when to exit the Ark.

It is clear in Austin that the 7-day moving average of hospital admissions, number of patients in the intensive care unit, ventilator usage, testing positivity rate, and the 7-day moving average of cases continue to trend down.

We have moved from stage 5 to stage 4 to now stage 3. In stage 3, we can resume in-person worship services. Religious school will return to being exclusively in person, as it was before Spring Break in 2020.

We have all these numbers to look at, but only the single number will actually trigger our policy: when a 4 becomes a 3. 

Noah used birds. Apparently, it was an exceedingly common ancient mariner trick to take birds with you to release in order to determine your proximity to land.  From the time the tops of the mountains become visible — choose your modern metaphor — Noah waits 40 days, releases a raven, followed by a dove on two occasions just one week apart.

It is entirely human to use metrics to determine what’s going on “outside.” But what of those birds in the Torah? Commentators like the medieval French RaDaK and later Hezekiah ben Manoah or Chizkuni and yet later medieval Italian Sforno all explain that the raven was a good choice to go first because it was a hardier animal than the dove, able to feed on carrion, clever and robust. Famously, it is unclear in a simple reading if the raven returns to the ark at all or everyday or, according to medieval French RaShI, just flies around waiting to bring food to the Prophet Elijah in the wilderness centuries later.  

The dove is more delicate, tender, and clearly returns when she is unable to find land or food. Famously, when the dove does find something, she returns to the ark with the torn olive leaf plucked from a tree as proof of dry land, before disappearing off to her own life in the world. 

In these birds, I see two models of how to behave in this liminal time. The raven is a model of independence, self-care, growth as an individual, and the pursuit of personal satisfaction. The dove is a model of interdependence, caring for one another, growing together in community and the pursuit of satisfaction as a community. 

When I think about all of us standing at this moment, metaphorical birds in our hands, trying to figure out the next right thing, the balancing act of when to be a raven and when a dove is very important. At times, we act as doves, who nurture others, don’t take sides, and make peace. At other points, we feel empowered to be ravens, attending to our self-care and our individual growth.

We will need both “birds” in our society in order to leave our metaphorical Ark. May we all be blessed with the knowledge of when each quality is called for and the ways we can best help our community and ourselves. 

Rabbi Rebecca Reice serves as the senior rabbi of Congregation Shir Ami in Cedar Park. Doing Good Together is compiled by Interfaith Action of Central Texas, interfaithtexas.org.