Category Archives: human character

Humanity: A Moral Category, Not an Anthropological One

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 once again to where it all began. Noah’s generation does just that. It is evil incarnate. Subhuman-like, it saturates the earth with violence. So it is left to sink into the mud, as the flood returns the world to its own 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; and in between, there is Noah, who is everyman and everywoman: mostly moral, but hardly a saint; and precariously afloat in an 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 from mud to mountain peak, and millions of years of steady evolution count for nothing.

At the end of the story, Noah dispatches a dove (in Hebrew, a yonah) to find land. The dove is symbolic, for birds fly; they are not dragged down; 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 a human being, the prophet Yonah — Jonah, in English.

Jonah is Noah revisited. He too inhabits a storm-tossed ship that threatens to spill its human cargo into nothingness. He too faces evil: the Ninevites. But he too is only human, hesitant to fulfil his moral promise, to the point of being swallowed by a fish that drags him ever lower into the very depths of the sea whence humankind first evolved. As if replicating human evolution, the fish spits him onto dry land insisting that he 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 after his identity, Jonah says, Ivri anokhi, “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 Song of Songs 2:14: “My dove, in the crags of the rocks.”

The dove in 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 who have evolved from the slime 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.

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 the Writings. Once upon a time, the Jewish People 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 the prophet) 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.

 

 

Having and Getting: They’re Not the Same

 

Once again, we reach the familiar story of the spies (or scouts) dispatched to reconnoiter the land of Canaan. Ten of its twelve members return with the devastating news that it is unconquerable; it is fruitless to go on. The two holdouts, Joshua and Caleb, demur. The land can be ours, they insist; don’t give up.

This is more than a case of a glass half full or half empty, the pessimists seeing problems and the optimists opportunity. Our commentators say it touches the heart of being human: the difference between a scout and a spy.

Elsewhere (Deut. 1:24), the reconnaissance party is recalled as “spying out” the land (vay’raglu); but as we see here, they were sent just latur – to “scout” it. Scouting and spying, says the Malbim, are dispositions of character, akin to “having” and “getting.”

When faced with something we might want, he says, we become “scouts,” simply checking out whether we really want to have it. If we decide we want it, we convert “scouting” into “spying,” the attitude of figuring out how to get it. Scouts look for positives: the reasons we might want it.  Spies ferret out negatives: the contextual flaws that may suggest a strategy by which to get it. As scouts, the biblical explorers saw a land flowing with milk and honey. As spies, they sought out Canaanite weaknesses – and finding none, they gave up hope of success. They were good scouts but bad spies. They properly saw the land as good “to have,” but could find no way “to get” it.

They weren’t supposed to be spies, however. How to “get” the land was God’s problem, not theirs. Their mission was simply to be scouts, to ramp up excitement at having a land of their own rather than being slaves in someone else’s land or wandering endlessly through the no-man’s land that is the desert. The Torah values scouting over spying. Politically or militarily speaking, the tactics of “getting” something do matter; but what counts is whether we want to “have” it in the first place.

American society today has forgotten that distinction. We are so enamored with “getting” that we spend our time figuring out how to get what we do not even want to “have.”

Take our obsession with shopping, for example — not shopping as a means of finding the best thing to have but shopping just to get what we do not need and will never use even if we get it.

Or, better, consider the difference between getting a job and having it. We equate success with constantly climbing the corporate ladder. Managers should aspire to become vice presidents, who, in turn, should dream of being president. But getting the job of president isn’t the same as having it. In 1969, author Laurence J. Peter gave us “The Peter Principle,” according to which, “employees tend to rise to their level of incompetence until every post is occupied by an employee who is incompetent to carry out its duties.” The actual work is accomplished by “those employees who have not yet reached their level of incompetence.”

That is bad for organizations, and worse for the people in them, those who get the jobs they wanted to get, but never really wanted to have. The Israelites wanted to have the land but mistakenly thought they couldn’t get it. Our society encourages us to get whatever job we can, even if we will not want to have it after we get it.

Life should be about having, not getting. At some point we ought to appreciate what we have, and, maybe, want to have even more, but our obsession with getting beyond what we can appreciate having is a sickness. Scouting out life’s opportunities is natural and healthy. Spying out the way to get everything in sight is a derangement well worth avoiding.