By Stephen Berer
This week’s Torah portion is Noach, Genesis 6:9 – 11:32.
This week we read of a flood that covered a mountain (Ararat) nearly 17,000 feet high and a little boat capable of holding (and saving) every species of land animal and bird.
The flood story is a fable, pure and simple. If it hints at some historical event, it could not have been like the Noah story recorded in the Torah.
It was not until modern times that people reached this conclusion. The medieval scholar Rashi and the sages that followed him used the story to make a wide range of moral assertions about Noah and his generation without even a hint of questioning whether the story recounted a historical event.
Ironically, when we finally have the data, the intellectual tools and the spiritual chops to classify this parsha as a fable, the Noah story has suddenly taken on profound new meanings, with warnings essential to human survival.
The Noah story provides us with at least two insights into our planet that are unique to our time.
First, it provides a basic working model of a cataclysmic extinction episode. Scientists theorize that the earth has suffered five extinction events, and the vessel that carried the species towards revival, the genetic code, includes within it every type of animal.
The biblical author(s) were giving us a pre-scientific version of this kind of potential. Yet we must ask: what inspired our author to tell this tale in such a unique way? Many cultures have myths about the gods destroying humankind, but the Torah’s version is the only one, to my knowledge, that focuses on the near extinction of all vertebrates, except fish.
The second insight in our parsha carries a more urgent message for modern readers. It is a warning about the cataclysmic results that can cascade from our careless and selfish management of the environment. We can apply this lesson across a wide spectrum of modern problems: global warming; chemical, biological and nuclear pollution; and the mismanagement of critical resources, including farmlands, forests, water, oil and rare metals.
For humans, the world has shrunk from a near infinite resource to a highly fragile and easily depleted biodome. We have become the flood-makers and world-destroyers. We ignore the many warning signs of our capacity to overwhelm the environment with the same peril that Noach’s generation ignored the warnings of God.
Am I merely projecting modern issues onto the Torah? I believe there is a divine authorship behind the Torah’s human author(s), an authorship that composes a document that is as pertinent and as useful to us as it was to our ancestors. When we outgrow the text on one level, it provides us with vital new insights on another.
As we cycle through the readings this year, look for the messages that are uniquely relevant to our times. You will find many.
Stephen Berer is education coordinator at Shirat HaNefesh in Chevy Chase.