By Rabbi Melanie Aron
This week’s Torah portion is Noach, Genesis 6:9-11:32.
What were we thinking when we told the story of Noah’s ark as a children’s tale? Before COVID, our congregation even built a wooden ark for the bimah. When we read Parshat Noach, we invited the youngest children to bring their stuffed animals and put them on it while we sang songs about the flood and the rainbow.
Now that the threat of widespread destruction seems more real, the story takes on a different cast. Over the last few years, we have seen environmental disasters, fires, droughts and floods, along with the decimation of animal life. Almost 70% of the world’s animal population has been destroyed since 1970, half the planet’s bird species are in decline and bee populations are plummeting. The recent flooding in Pakistan and Florida are just two examples of events whose impact will be felt for years.
Traditional commentaries focus on Noah’s failure to prevent this catastrophe. They describe Noah, emerging from the ark and challenging God, “How could you do this?” and God’s response: “Now, you ask me?” Noah’s inaction contrasts with Abraham’s pleading on behalf of the cities of Sodom and Amorrah (Zohar Chadash). The Kedushat HaLevi criticizes Noah for thinking of himself as too small and lowly to even pray for God to change his decree.
The rabbis teach us “ein mukdam umeucher ba-Torah,” there is no “earlier” or “later” in the Torah, and so we understand biblical intertexuality. With Yom Kippur so recent, we see a relationship between the Noah and Jonah stories. The evil doings of the generation of the flood and the city of Nineveh are described with the same word: “hamas,” violence. God’s regret is also described with the same word, “veyenachem.” Yet through Jonah the city of Nineveh is given warning and is able to repent and change their actions and their destiny.
Noah, not a prophet, is only the best available at the time, while Jonah, though an anti-hero, fulfills his prophetic mission. He offers a warning, not a prediction, an opportunity and not a foregone conclusion.
Scholars writing about different world cultures note the many records of great disasters. The ancient story of Gilgamesh, with its Noah parallel, is termed “the earliest work of ecological literature.” Legends in both Northern Europe and Australia record stories of great floods which scholars relate to flooding that took place 10,000 years ago, with a rise in sea levels of 30 feet over a 200 year period. Tim Burbery, of Marshall University, explains why these stories are so common: “Ancient societies may have sought to broadcast their warning. Beware these things can happen.”
Without a habitable planet, nothing else is possible. Yet despite the threats to our Earth, environmental issues are not at the top of most people’s priority lists. Significantly it is Gen Z (84%) and millennials (87%) who are most likely to voice concerns, to support environmental organizations or to march, protest or boycott. We shouldn’t be surprised that younger people take this issue very seriously; it is their lives that are on the line.
Isaiah warns us that though God has promised never to destroy the world, we could bring that upon ourselves: “the earth is withered, the world languishes” (Isaiah 24:4), while Patrick Nunn of the University of the Sunshine Coast in Australia, sees the ancient flood literature as a possible source of inspiration: “The fact that our ancestors survived those periods gives us hope that we can survive this.” The awareness of the possible consequences of inaction, along with hope that changes will make a difference, combine to prompt to action. Our fate is not yet sealed. The rainbow is a promise that God will not destroy the earth; but will we?
Rabbi Melanie Aron is rabbi emerita of Congregation Shir Hadash in Los Gatos, Calif. She is currently living in Washington, D.C., where she is a congregant at Temple Micah and Temple Sinai.