As I write this message from a game reserve near the town of Hluhluwe in South Africa, I have never been closer to animals in the wild that resemble their prehistoric predecessors. The rhinos, hippos, giraffes, elephants and other animals we are seeing here are in no hurry to get anywhere. They have been here for many thousands of years, perhaps even millions.
Yet, I am saddened to see how their existence is threatened because of new realities, like poaching, urban development and climate change. These species are now completely dependent on the efforts of conservationists who are trying to protect them from extinction. But it may be a losing battle and, in another decade or two, we will only see these animals in zoos.
I have also never been closer to the indigenous tribal cultures of Africa. At night, there are locals who dress in their traditional garb to perform their songs accompanied by drumming and dancing. It’s beautiful and poignant to see people trying to preserve their cultural heritage. Yet, their efforts seem dwarfed by the prospect that in another generation or two, the remnants of their culture may only be found in museums.
The post-modern world to which we are accustomed is accelerating change at an unprecedented rate. Groups that are most conservative – that is, most diligent in their efforts to conserve their ways of life – are the ones most likely to remain strong. We can see this borne out by trends in the Jewish community which show that Orthodox denominations are growing faster than liberal ones, which are assimilating rapidly.
What does the future hold for Reform and other liberal Jews? There is much to be lost but, in the course of our evolution, there is also much to be gained. It’s hard to know what is to come, just as it must have been for Noah and his family in this week’s Torah portion, Noach. All they could see was the destruction of the world they had known. There was no way for them to see what would come next.
As I stare with radical amazement at the rhinos and tribal dancers, I sense there is an intelligence behind the evolutionary processes they embody. Whether one sees this intelligence as the God who spoke to Noah or, in more naturalistic terms, as the Evolutionary Impulse, I sense that It is still here, long after the Flood, staring back at us in radical amazement. I’m not sure what will be next for us but I trust that the processes that led us to where we are now will continue to lead us.
R’ Moshe Tom