By Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb
Special to WJW
This week’s Torah portion is Noah, Genesis 6:9 – 11:32.
Noah, we’re told, was “a righteous upstanding person, in his generation” (Genesis 6:9). The rabbis debated the seemingly superfluous b’dorotav, “in his generation”: Was Noah best of a bad bunch, or an exemplar for future generations? The answer depends on what might’ve happened during all those ark-building years.
Midrash offers two very different possible Noahs. Noah One kept his head down, and made no waves. He built the ark, which got his family and the animals through the flood — but missed the chance to educate others (compare Jonah), or protest divine destruction (compare Abraham). Good, but not great, this Noah seems righteous only by the low standards of his day.
Noah Two went public. He and Na’amah (his wife, whose name and character emerge only in midrash) embraced the prophetic role, making the construction project a spectacle, a clarion warning. They educated and exhorted their generation — and though unheeded then, they remain an example for us, today.
What kind of Noah are we?
Today’s science is largely settled: Human activity now drives mass species extinctions, planetary heating and global climate disruption. We’ve been warned. As in Noah’s time, only huge, swift changes can forestall catastrophe. Will we lead and thrive, or ignore and drown?
Consider three big, Judaically rooted reasons for “climate teshuvah,” our required reckoning and change. One is l’dor vador, sustaining the world “from generation to generation.” Are we being good ancestors, knowing what we know, yet still doing as we do?! We’re Noah One, at best. A second big reason is tzedek, social justice. Poor and disempowered people are the first and worst-hit victims, from stronger storms to longer droughts, mounting instability to new waves of climate refugees. Carbon worsens every social ill. Noah Two demands our intervention.
Unchecked, our fossil fuel addiction will drown any progress our civilization makes. Literally: Rising seas threaten Southwest Washington and Sao Paulo, Tel Aviv and Tunis. God promised to never again drown all flesh (Genesis 9:15) — but this time, we’re the cause. And Noah is the poster child for the last big reason to seriously tackle climate change: saving the rest of life on Earth. We humans are just one of millions of species, now crowding out the others. Each species, with its own right to exist, expresses the creativity of God/Nature. Even Noah One, who sheltered those endangered critters on the ark, is a hero here.
But like us, Noah was on a learning journey. He first sent a raven to scout for dry land. In one midrash (Sanhedrin 108b), the exhausted bird barely made it back to the ark, then scolded Noah: Why send it, of which there were only two, rather than another (kosher) bird, of which there were seven? “If the power of sun or of wind had overcome me, would not the world be lacking a species?!” Noah tried to justify his choices, but finally saw the light. Next time, he sent the dove.
Key to the whole Noah story: We’re all in this together, humans and other animals alike. With the keshet, or rainbow, God says “Here I am, establishing my brit (covenant) with you, and with your descendants after you, and with every living creature that’s with you” (Genesis 9:9-10).
So make the rainbow connection. Be righteous like Noah, through education and action. Let’s protect our descendants, other people and every creature on Earth.
Question to consider: Before being Jews, we (like Noah and Naamah) were humans, and part of the larger community of Creation. The first brit, or covenant, this week’s rainbow, was with all life. How might we better balance being children of Israel, children of humanity and children of Earth? WJW
Fred Scherlinder Dobb, rabbi at Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda, is also chair of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life.