To reflect on the question: Is society progressing or regressing?
Moment Magazine has a section called “Big Questions.” The most recent issue asked several prominent thinkers to reflect on the question: Is society progressing or regressing? I know my immediate response was that we are absolutely regressing. Yet – the power of a good question is that the more you think about it – the more you see it is more complicated than your initial reaction. More questions emerge: Is this conclusion that we are regressing justified? Are we really moving backward? Or is what we are seeing a temporary detour on the path forward? What determines progress or regression? Those big questions matter – they influence how we see and respond to the world.
As I reflected on this question I thought about the book of Genesis – which gives an interesting framework to address this question. Genesis suggests a recurring pattern of regression – or in the words of the text – chaos, to progression – order. With each episode of the recurring pattern, more and different lessons emerge about our role in responding to chaos with morality.
Let’s start at the beginning – In last week’s portion Bereshit, we see the universe initially described as tohu va’vo’hu – pure chaos. God brings order to the chaos – resulting in a magnificent world. Humans represented the pinnacle of that creative process. Everything created up to that point is described as tov – humans are very good – tov me’od. We so dignified and capable that the text describes us as created in the Divine image – b’tzelem Elohim. The story culminates in the ultimate order – Shabbat. Everything is completed, in its proper place with no clashing natural forces or conflicts between creatures.
Yet this order and progress is not the end of the story. Chaos immediately ensues as human choices undo what God has created. Adam and Eve disobey God and are expelled from Paradise, Cain kills his brother Abel – God’s ultimate creation – life is destroyed. Human choice undermines Divine order resulting in reversion to the chaos that preceded Creation. And in this week’s portion the reversion to chaos grows exponentially. Evil multiplies: va’tisha’chet ha’aretz – the land became corrupt, va’ti’maleh ha’aretz hamas – the world was filled with lawlessness. Human actions create chaos. God, who turned chaos into order, has given free will and therefore has no power to prevent us from making poor choices that unleash chaos. In response to Moment Magazine’s question – Genesis suggests that human regression constantly recurs. This truth feels hauntingly real right now.
Humans have created chaos need not be our destiny. In fact – from chaos, new beginnings emerge. Amidst the flooding waters surrounding the ark, Noah, his family and all the animals cast about amidst the tumult – only to emerge with a new beginning. The Torah present the image of a fetus in the womb – surrounded by water – waiting to emerge. Chaos and regression are real and terrifying – yet we remember that new beginnings await in the aftermath of chaos.
In Genesis, the stories of regression back to chaos leads to new learning and unexpected progress. What is different as Noah steps off the ark? One difference is that God promises never to destroy the world again. That is game changing! Rabbi Irving Greenberg writes that: “God must learn to quell anger, to give more room for human beings to better their world.” At the end of the story the rainbow symbolizes the Divine promise to overcome the impulse to destroy in anger. Out of pain and anguish – regression – emerges responsibility, different understandings of God and the insight that we are to be God’s partners in bringing order to chaos.
As we compare episodic stories of chaos to order and order to chaos – each story reveals new insights as to how we are to view and respond to the world, as we seek to create order amidst the chaos. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out a key, and often overlooked difference, between the story of Creation and the aftermath of the flood. Both stories say that God made humans in the Divine Image – but the stories differ radically in how they describe this truth. In Genesis 1 (1:27) it reads: “God created humans in the Divine image – in the image of God, God created humans.” Va’yivra Elohim et ha’adam b’tzalmo – b’tzelem Elohim bara oto. This teaches how we view ourselves – humans created in the Divine image. The Noah story in Genesis 9 (9:6) shares the same belief – but looks at it from a different angle: “Whoever sheds the blood of humans, by humans shall his or her blood be shed, for in the image of God, God made humankind.” This rendering is about how we view and behave towards others. Genesis 1 focuses on self-image; while Genesis 9 focuses on how we view others. That subtle shift changes everything! We save the world from violence and chaos by seeing God’s image in someone else. The story calls on us to respond to chaos by seeing the divinity in those who are different than we are: color, class, culture or creed! We are all created in the Divine Image and therefore of ultimate worth. The movement from chaos to order is in our hands as we see the trace of God in every person.
The chaos of the flood and its destruction results in a new theology: God will not destroy in anger, but instead desires that we choose goodness. We are God’s partner in building a better world. In fact, God depends on us to complete and repair the world. We won’t always get it right – we humans make terrible mistakes – but God loves us, accepts our limitations and wants us to mature and become fully images of God.
The message of responding to chaos by being God’s partners in lifting up the divinity of fellow human is the inspiring message of this moment. We will create a world of equality – where the economic inequities, racial division, educational inequalities are addressed in real ways. We begin in our own homes and neighborhoods – inspired by the seeds of change we are witnessing.
In the most recent Reader’s Digest, there is a story about Rio Vista – just down the road on the Sacramento River delta. As we know, many subdivisions are developing there, and 57 year old Richard Lynn, a union electrician wanted to join in the peaceful, pleasant life the new subdivision promised. But for Lynn, there was always the issue of race. He is African American – and one of just a handful of minorities where the vast majority of his neighbors are white.
In 2019, video emerged of the police body-slamming a black woman following a traffic stop. Richard encountered neighbors who didn’t seem to want to say hello and when the one-two combo of the COVID -19 quarantine and the George Floyd protests hit, he realized he felt afraid to leave his house to take a walk or go for a jog. He wondered, “What if someone calls a cop, thinking he is a burglar? What if the responding officer has an itchy trigger finger?” He shared that it was the first time as an adult he felt unsafe. He wrote a post on nextdoor.com: “Can’t go for a walk because I am Black. Can’t go for a drive because I am Black. Can’t get angry because I am Black. I am home and I am crying. What can I do?”
Little did he know that he’d already done it. His neighbors saw his post and felt his pain. In the words of Genesis – they saw his divinity and acted. Offers poured in to join him for a walk. Soon, dozens of neighbors – including the Chief of Police and the head of the Fire Department – joined Lynn for twice daily walks through the subdivision. They would stop at 7:25 – the time of Floyd George’s death and take a knee. For Richard Lynn and the citizens of Rio Vista, this was a walk of celebration. Progress happens when we dig into the chaos and emerge differently. It happens through little steps, amidst regression and in the face of those who would seek to stoke the chaos – resistant to any change and refusing to see the divinity of fellow humans.
At a moment when it feels as if we as a society are regressing, we remember that we are responsible for overcoming chaos. We have the dignity of partnering with God to create new beginnings. We act to defend democracy. We lift up the dignity of every human. We reach out to all in need. We safeguard life. We act through teaching, advocating, learning, and voting. Change is not easy. The road is long and difficult. Yet chaos yields to order step by step, act by act, lesson by lesson. The story of recurring chaos and order, each episode with new lessons teach us that our failures and regressions – which can be too frequent, painful and last too long are opportunities to learn, change and grow.
Let’s embrace being God’s partners and creating a world where the divinity of every single person is lifted up. Let us respond to chaos by creating change, let us believe in our capacity to accomplish great things when they are willing to work together – knowing that we are resilient and strong. This is the call of this moment. Shabbat Shalom.