Parshat Noach is a very popular part of the Bible with kids. It’s a simple story kids can understand. Noah saves two of every kind of animal from a great flood. The ark and the animals make for great artistic opportunities. I’m sure most parents have pictures their kids drew of the ark, or of a rainbow or of the animals walking two by two.
In that playful spirit, a little later this morning our kids will sing a song for us about Noah … “the Lord said to Noah, there’s gonna be a floody floody, the Lord said to Noah, there’s gonna be a floody floody…”
With the connection to animals some synagogues offer a blessing for the animals this weekend. Creative people have made this week’s parsha a lot of fun.
Which is totally incongruous and inconsistent with the actual story.
The truth is, this week’s parsha is the scariest story in the entire Bible. We should read it and tremble instead of reading it and smiling. There are a wealth of important lessons we can learn from this truly terrifying tale of death and destruction.
At the end of last week’s Torah reading, Bereshit, we read “And God saw כִּי רַבָּה רָעַת הָאָדָם בָּאָרֶץ that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the day. And the Lord repented that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart. And the Lord said, אֶמְחֶה אֶת-הָאָדָם אֲשֶׁר-בָּרָאתִי I will erase man whom I have created from the face of the earth; both man, and beast, and the creeping thing, and the birds of the air; for I repent that I have made them.”
In this week’s reading we are told that not only were people and animals wicked, but וַתִּשָּׁחֵת הָאָרֶץ the earth itself was corrupt, וַתִּמָּלֵא הָאָרֶץ חָמָס and the earth itself was filled with violence.
“And God looked upon the earth, and, behold, it was corrupt; כִּי-הִשְׁחִית כָּל-בָּשָר אֶת-דַּרְכּוֹ עַל-הָאָרֶץ for all flesh had corrupted its way upon the earth. And God said to Noah, The end of all flesh has come before me; for the earth is filled with violence through them; and, behold, I will destroy them with the earth. And, behold, I, Myself, bring a flood of waters upon the earth, to destroy all flesh, where there is the breath of life, from under heaven; and every thing that is in the earth shall die.”
And of course it rains for forty days and nights. “And the waters prevailed exceedingly upon the earth; and all the high hills, that were under the whole heaven, were covered. Fifteen cubits upward did the waters prevail; and the mountains were covered.” The highest mountains were under 23 feet of water. And then we are told וַיִּמַח אֶת-כָּל-הַיְקוּם אֲשֶׁר עַל-פְּנֵי הָאֲדָמָה “And every living substance was destroyed which was upon the face of the ground, both man, and cattle, and the creeping things, and the bird of the heaven; and they were destroyed from the earth; and Noah only remained alive, and those who were with him in the ark.”
This isn’t just a bad person being punished for his sins, like Cain being punished for killing Abel. This isn’t just a town or two being destroyed, like Sodom and Gomorrah. This isn’t even all humankind being punished like happened to us after Adam and Eve’s sin with the illicit fruit. In the story of the flood, even the animals were punished.
The rabbis tell us that the destruction included not only the animals, but all the plants, and even extending into the air itself – 15 cubits above the ground, and into the very earth itself, three tefachim, about a foot into the ground.
This is story of absolute complete and utter destruction, with just a small remnant saved with which to start over – it’s the stuff of science fiction stories about the end of the world after a nuclear war followed by a nuclear winter with a handful of hardy survivors creating civilization anew.
All of which raises some very obvious questions. Why should all of the animals have been destroyed? Why the plants? Why the air and the earth? They don’t have free will. They didn’t “choose” to do anything evil. OK, man was wicked, destroy man. Why punish things that didn’t choose to do wrong? After all, as Avraham Avinu argued with God, ha shofat cal ha’aretz lo ya’aseh mishpat, will not the judge of all the earth act righteously? Where’s the justice in killing animals and destroying inanimate objects?
Rashi’s commentary on the verse which says “ki hishchit cal basar,” for all flesh had become corrupted says that even the animals were behaving strangely, engaging in the sexual improprieties of interspecies mating, which I guess in the eyes of the rabbis is as close as an animal can get to committing adultery.
Whether or not interspecies mating is a sin of some sort which should cause animals to be liable to the death penalty, we can certainly note that according to this interpretation the animals were acting very strangely indeed.
The late Slonimer Rebbe, not necessarily known as a big environmentalist, teaches that the complete destruction was brought about because of man, who corrupted the environment. That it was because of man’s sins that the entire environment had become corrupted – the actions of man influence the nature of people, and not only people, but the nature of animals and the nature of all creation. The Slominer says the flaws of mankind were so terrible in the generation of the flood that they poisoned every part of creation. The Slonimer teaches that it’s like bacteria or a virus. You have some kinds of bacteria that might infect a person but are not dangerous to other people or animals in the area – which I suppose would be something like a bacterial infection that someone picked up in a hospital during an operation, it’s not contagious, but it can be very dangerous to the person carrying it around. Then you have forms of bacteria or viruses that are only dangerous though very close contact with someone, not the Slonimer’s example, but HIV comes to mind. It’s infectious, but it’s not contagious from just being in the same space. And then you have bacteria or viruses that render the very air poisonous and dangerous to anyone in the same room, and some kinds of diseases are even contagious across species lines, as bird flu that can jump to humans.
People had become so corrupt and wicked, they polluted the spiritual environment of the world like a deadly virus that spreads with a sneeze or a cough. The corruption of people was so bad that it spread throughout the environment – to the point that even creations that don’t have a yetzer hara, a wicked inclination, became corrupted. Even the air and ground itself were rendered poisonous by the sins of mankind. So God had no choice but to push the “reset button,” to erase what he had created and start over.
The Slonimer says the destruction of the flood was NOT a punishment; rather the world could no longer exist because of all these sins of corruption; when even the air and ground have been corrupted, in essence destruction follows as the only way to restore things to their original purity.
The same thing happens with our computers … some files can become so corrupt, whether through a virus or malfunction, that they can mess up your system so badly that the only solution is to reformat your hard drive and start over – which destroys any data on your disk. I had a little software problem on my computer last week, and when I called tech support and they offered to help me restore my computer to its original state, I decided I could live with the flaw instead!
God wasn’t punishing the corrupt generation. He was just pushing the reset button, because there was nothing else to do with it.
What terrifies me so much about the story of Noah, is that what the generation of the flood did to the spiritual environment, our generation is doing to the physical environment. With possibly the same ultimate consequences – the destruction of the world we live in.
Rashi’s comment on “all flesh had become corrupted” – that the animals were acting very strangely – reminds me of an article by Charles Siebert that ran in the NY Times magazine a few weeks ago. “An Elephant Crack-Up: Are We Driving Elephants Crazy.” Up until recently, people and elephants seemed to get along pretty well. For the most part we did our thing, they did their thing. Elephants never attacked humans unless the humans did the attacking first. An elephant that attacked a human was a “rogue,” was behaving in a very unusual fashion.
But nowadays, elephants are acting up. Siebert reports that “all across Africa, India and parts of Southeast Asia, from within and around whatever patches and corridors of their habitat remain, elephants have been striking out, destroying villages and crops, attacking and killing human beings.” The attacks have become so common that there is a new statistical category monitored by elephant researchers knows as “Human-Elephant Conflict,” or H.E.C. In just the Indian state of Jharkand 300 people were killed by elephants between 2000 and 2004.
What has happened? We can find a hint in the teachings of the Ba’al HaAkeda, a 15th century Spanish commentator. Ba’al HaAkedah points out that God told Adam that he would rule over the animals; Noah instead is told that the animals will be afraid of him. Noah was afraid of bringing dangerous animals onto the ark; God reassured him, and said to him, don’t be afraid – those animals will be afraid of you, you won’t be afraid of them. The wild animals will flee from you to distant forests.
And what we’re doing today to the wild animals is destroying the distant forests. They would normally flee from people. But we’ve been destroying their habitat, and in the case of elephants we’ve been destroying their families through mis-guided herd culling practices. They have nowhere they can flee from us, and we’ve upset and destroyed their strong family social system. We are driving the elephants crazy. The behavior the elephants exhibit is similar to people who are suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome.
Elephants have become corrupted – behaving strangely, attacking humans – and it’s because of the sins of mankind, the sin of destroying the elephants’ habitat and families.
And of course our sins against the environment literally render the air and the ground poison. The most dramatic example of course being Chernobyl. Estimates of the death toll from Chernobyl vary widely – they range from a low of 50 to a high of hundreds of thousands of premature deaths. The truth as in so many things is probably in the middle somewhere.
The impact we are having on the environment is perhaps nowhere more widespread than what we are doing to the climate. As is well known, the Bush administration downplays the threat from global warming. However, the the EPA’s web site – a government agency headed by a Bush appointee – tells us that scientists know with virtual certainty that human activity has increased the concentration of greenhouse gases which warm the planet, and that the planetwide average temperature rose somewhere between .7 and 1.5 degrees Centigrade in the 20th century. The EPA’s web site quotes an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change which says “There is new and stronger evidence that most of the warming observed over the last 50 years is attributable to human activities.”
The Arctic is the world’s “canary in the coal mine” when it comes to tracking the effects of global warming and what’s happening in the Arctic is frightening. Houses in Fairbanks, Alaska are splitting apart as the permafrost they are built on melts due to warming temperatures. Villages on Alaskan islands are being forced to relocate as ice melts and homes sink toward the sea. Nearly every major glacier in the world is shrinking; those in Glacier National Park are retreating so quickly it has been estimated that they will vanish entirely by 2030. Should the warming continue it could lead to the melting of the Greenland ice sheet, with disastrous consequences for every coastal city in the world.
The impact that people have in adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere is illustrated beautifully in an article by Dr. Jeremy Benstein, Eli and Fagie’s son, which appeared in the Jerusalem Report of October 16. It’s a lesson we can learn from seeing what happens to air pollution in Israel on Yom Kippur.
Yom Kippur in Israel is very different than Yom Kippur in America. As Jeremy points out in his article, what happens inside an American synagogue may be similar to what happens inside an Israeli one, but what happens outside is very different. By popular choice, Yom Kippur in Israel is a “car-free day.” It is eerie. The year we lived in Israel I was astounded how on Yom Kippur there was not a single car on the streets, no taxis, no buses, nothing. The streets are taken over by kids on roller skates and bicycles. It’s amazing.
It’s not only fun for kids, but it gives the environment a day off too. In his article, there is a graph which shows the levels of nitrous oxide pollutants in the air in the Tel Aviv area, before, during, and after Yom Kippur last year. It’s very dramatic. High levels of pollutants before and after Yom Kippur; on Yom Kippur itself the readings are a fraction of a percent of the day before or the day after.
Just think – if we could get the whole world to really observe Shabbat – a day a week like Yom Kippur in Israel, a day when pollution levels would fall to next to nothing – we could really give the earth a chance to restore itself, at least a little. The Slonimer rebbe teaches that Shabbat is the remedy to the ills of the generation of the flood. The Zohar teaches that Noah is an allusion to the Holy Sabbath; the Zohar teaches that Shabbat Kodesh is a day of noach, a day of rest and contentment below and day of noach above. For every bad or wicked thing in the world there is a good or positive thing in the world to counteract it. Shabbat is the source of good with no evil. This explains a teaching from the Talmud which says that anyone who observes Shabbat according to its rules, even if he does idol worship as bad as the generation of the flood, his sins are forgiven him. This is a hopeful message – if we let the planet rest, perhaps our sins of corrupting the earth can be healed and forgiven. The pushing of the “reset button” does not need to be inevitable.
It is, alas, unlikely that we will succeed in getting the whole world to observe Shabbat every week to give the planet a break. So what can we do?
We can each contribute our part – and observing Shabbat actually does help. If you cut back cut back on your driving by 1/7 it would mean 15% less air pollution. We can drive cars that get better gas mileage—the more gas you burn, the more pollution you put in the air. Hyb
rid cars, which run on both gas and electric motors, are way better for the environment than regular cars.
The leading greenhouse gas is carbon dioxide. We can reduce our “carbon footprint” in another way besides driving less. Planting trees helps because trees breathe in carbon dioxide and breath out oxygen. British Airways now offers people the option of paying a small additional charge as a donation toward carbon offsets through planting trees so that there would be no net negative impact to the environment from a flight a person takes. If you donate money to the Jewish National Fund you can do an environmentally correct act expressed in a Zionist way.
You can support organizations dedicated to protecting the environment, like the Sierra Club. Or do it with a Zionist twist and support organizations like the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, the Heschel Center or the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel.
A handout with information on organizations that support animals and the environment can be found on the literature table by the entrance.
May God help our generation to learn the lesson of the generation of the flood. May God help us to stop corrupting the planet before we wipe ourselves out and the planet starts over without us,