This week’s Torah portion is Noach, Genesis 6:9-11:32.
In early June 1986, I sat on the graduation stage at Wilde Lake High School in Columbia. I don’t remember much about the ceremony — green and gold robes, a beach ball thrown clandestinely among graduates. That ceremony is now ancient history to me, distanced from today by college, graduate school, marriage, three children. The past 30 years have been as full and fulfilling, if not more so, than I anticipated on graduation night.
Some 40 days before I graduated and 5,000 miles away, the Chernobyl power plant had exploded, sending 6.9 tons of radioactive particles into the air, killing scores, maiming thousands and turning a large swath in the Ukraine toxic. While my classmates and I looked toward futures of promise, there was only desolation half a world away.
In this week’s Torah portion, after 40 days of rain, Noah opens the skylight of his ark to see desolation, a world obliterated by water. Noah witnesses the world’s first environmental disaster. Even after the water recedes, the earth appeared toxic. The text says that Noah opened the ark and saw “the surface of the ground had dried up.” Rashi understands this to mean, “The earth became a sort of clay, for its upper surface had formed a crust.”
A crusty earth made of clay would be hostile to life. What about humankind itself? Earth, adamah, is molded to create Adam in Genesis 2. It is this also adamah that becomes crusty after the flood. The Torah hints at Noah’s psychological wounds. After the flood, there is relatively scant information about Noah, considering that he lived for another 350 years. Noah leaves the ark, offers sacrifices to God, then tills that crusty earth until grapes grow. He makes wine and he drinks himself into a drunken stupor.
Physical wounds are much easier to recognize than psychological. Last week, the Nobel committee awarded the Nobel Prize for literature to Svetlana Alexievich, who chronicled life for the survivors of Chernobyl. The committee said that she created “a monument to suffering and courage in our time.”
Surprisingly, not all is lost in Chernobyl. Scientists have made a fascinating discovery. After the explosion, a 19-mile square area was deemed an exclusion zone, unfit for humans to live. In the past 30 years, this area has been left untouched. And, without human interference, it has become an accidental refuge for wildlife, albeit one plagued by radioactive poisoning. Even with the lasting toxicity, the populations of deer, elk, wolves and wild boars far exceed pre-explosion numbers. There is more wildlife in the exclusion zone than in designated animal refuges in the Ukraine.
Chernobyl is not the first. Way back in the book of Genesis, God made rejuvenation possible after the flood. The desolate earth once again became a sanctuary for life. In our parsha, God tells Noah to let the animals disperse after the flood: “Every living thing that is with you of all flesh, of fowl, and of animals and of all the creeping things that creep on the earth, bring out with you, and they shall swarm upon the earth, and they shall be fruitful and multiply upon the earth.” Our world, with its great diversity and beauty of wildlife, is testament to renewal after the flood.
Environmental scientists have warned us for years about human destruction of our planet. The reports of global warming, ozone depletion and decreased biodiversity can feel overwhelming. But the warnings have become increasingly difficult to ignore. We have felt the harsher weather, the more severe storms, the hotter summers and the colder winters. After the flood, Noah and the animals walked out of the ark onto the crusty earth. And the living world began again. Let us not wait until words like “toxic,” “obliterated” and “desolate” describe our natural home. Before God’s world is utterly destroyed, let us commit ourselves to its renewal.
Rabbi Deborah Bodin Cohen is the director of congregational learning at Congregation Har Shalom in Potomac.