The ancient story of the Flood suggests our ancestors realized in some way that societal dysfunction could be disastrous for the world.
"Fear not, you shall not be shamed; do not cringe, you shall not be disgraced," says the prophet Isaiah (54:4) to the people - in the message paired with our Torah-reading this week - indicating it is possible to transcend and to move beyond mortifying times in the national story.
"For this to Me is like the waters of Noah: as I swore that the waters of Noah nevermore would flood the earth, so I swear that I will not be angry with you or rebuke you." (Isaiah 54:9)
That is the divine assurance to the nation, holding out the promise of mutual commitment, if the people, too, can be committed to moving forward into more constructive times.
"Unhappy, storm-tossed one, uncomforted! I will lay precious stones as your building blocks, and make your foundations of sapphires. And I will make your shining towers of gemstones, and your gates of precious stones, your whole perimeter of jewels." (Isaiah 54:11-12)
In other words, you can still be a treasure - says God to the nation through the prophet - a shining reality. But how? What kind of society sparkles in the way Isaiah prophesies?
A fascinating rabbinic commentary on the word translated just above, in Isaiah 12, as "gemstones" - in Hebrew, the word is "kadkod" - if we look beyond just the cleverness of its wordplay - perhaps provides an indication of one important kind of health in a society.
In the interpretation, the Hebrew consonants of the word in question - KDKD - are heard as echoing an Aramaic way to say that a thing is actually as two differing schools of thought perceive it - ke-dein, and also ke-dein - "as this one says, and also as this one says."
And so the interpretation runs as follows:
"'And I shall make your shining towers Kadkod' - Two angels in heaven, Michael and Gabriel - and some say two sages in the West, Yehudah and Chezekiah the sons of Rabbi Chiyyah - differed in their views of this. One said Kadkod meant 'onyx.' The other said 'jasper.' The Blessed Holy One declared - 'It shall be ke-dein and ke-dein - it shall be as the one says, and as the other says.'"
The paradox - the interpretive brilliance in which the bone of contention itself comes to signify that both views of it are valid - makes for a lovely Midrash, a little tour-de-force in the classical rabbinic mode of interpretive close reading - a gem, one might even say.
But, you may protest, we are speaking of a stone, surely an actual stone has to be one thing or the other - what nonsense is this that says it can really be as two differing perspectives see it?
I would say the answer is a particular kind of societal wisdom that has seemed more and more lacking, as the country in which I sit writing this moves toward its great moment of decision.
A two party system is of course built on contention - disagreement is the fire of its crucible; opposition and challenge are the refining forces of its debates. Nothing less than the foundation-stones themselves are constantly argued over - one school of thought saying they are this, the other they are that, even as the gems themselves are showcased in plain sight for all to see. Yes, it is possible to disagree over their nature - it may even be essential to do so, for a dynamic society moving forward.
But the same forces that refine and forge, when they break loose and become ends in their own right, also can threaten to shatter that which previously may have seemed diamond-strong, the essential integrity of the society that is the container for all the disagreements.
Says God through the prophet this week: "I have created the smith that blows upon the fire of the coals and draws forth tools for work; and I have created the instrument of havoc." (Isaiah 54:16)
May the week ahead bear out and demonstrate a vindicating truth - that the contentious and shining society in which we are so blessed to live still has fortitude and wisdom enough to handle with constructive responsibility the brilliant, fiery way in which it has shaped itself.
"All your children shall be learned of the Eternal One, and great shall be the peace of your children. You shall be established in righteousness; distance yourself from oppression, for you shall have no cause of fear; and from ruin, it shall not come near you." (Isaiah 54:13-14) May it be so.