thoughts about sustainability – from Noach to Abraham
“And the bow shall be in the cloud; and I will look upon it, that I may remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is upon the earth.”
Parshat Noach details a terrible ecological disaster, the Flood that immerses the world in water and brings an end to all life – all because of man’s despicable behavior. In this parsha we meet Noach, the first “environmental activist” who acted upon a divine commandment to keep every species of animal safe on his ark. The Biblical story ends with an eternal covenant between G-d and humanity, in which we are promised that the land will never be destroyed again at the hands of the Creator.
Today, we are once again experiencing widespread destruction of the earth – this time not as a divine punishment, but as a direct result of human actions. What is the connection between our generation and the generation of Noach? And what can we learn from Noach’s story? And how, with our collective strengths, can we prevent the next flood?
Do we control the world or are we dependent on God’s gifts?
The story of the flood begins with a description of the evil that has fallen upon the land:
And the earth was corrupt before God, and the earth was filled with violence. (Genesis 6:11)
Rashi, the great Biblical commentator, explains that the word “hamas” (violence) refers to “gezel” (stealing). But what did people steal in order to bring upon themselves such a punishment?
One interesting idea presented in the Midrashic anthology Yalkut Shimoni is that the generation of the Flood committed the sin of hubris – intense pride before nature and the order of the world. The “dor haflagah” – the generation that built the tower of Babel after the flood – is described as the generation that revealed how to control nature and its resources. With the help of technological developments and other means, the people of this generation reached a state in which they felt that they were without fear before the strengths of nature and no longer relied on divine intervention.
The Midrash (Sanhedrin 108, page 2) further emphasizes this point, describing the reactions of the people upon seeing Noach building the ark. If a flood of water should come from the land, say the generation of Noach, they will reinforce the land with poles of steel. Also a flood of fire will not scare them. They are apparently so perfected that they have no reason to fear anything – they are prepared for any kind of natural disaster.
The ability to act from within nature brings the generation of the flood to heightened pride before the world and before God. This pride brings them to “hamas” (stealing) – perhaps to stealing the world’s resources. All these together, led to the inevitable consequence – the flood that destroyed the world.
In the arrogant, violent world of the generation of the Flood, Noach was chosen to save and perpetuate the existence of life. Why was Noach chosen to survive, while the rest of humanity was decimated?
The verses claim that Noach “found favor” in the eyes of God – “chen,” from the language of “chinam” (free). It is never clear to us why this man was saved from disaster while others were not.
But Noach was not saved alone – following G-d’s commandment, he places into his ark all the species of the world and cares for them for an entire year.
Our Sages describe Noach’s difficult work in the ark in detail – holy work done entirely from selflessness and kindness. According to the Midrash Tanchuma, “throughout those twelve months, Noach and his sons did not sleep, because they had to feed the animals, beasts and birds.” The Talmud also explains thatthe ark hadthree levels – one for Noach and his family, one for the animals, and one for the animals’ waste – revealing how much energy he put into their care. Another legend tells that Noach endangered his life, and was even wounded, when he went to feed the lion. According to Rashi, Noach worked so hard that he would groan and grow faint from the burden of the animals (Rashi, Genesis 7:23).
Noach’s concern extended beyond the animals of the world. He also considered the continuity of plant life, bringing with him onto the ark “good things to plant, fig shoots and olive saplings” (Midrash Rabba, Parshat Noach 1:14). Clearly, Noach, in the earliest known case of nature preservation, went out of his way to save animals and plants. There is only one species that Noach made no effort to save – humans.
The Zohar relates the following story:
What did God answer Noah when he left the Ark and saw the world destroyed? He [Noah] began to cry before God and he said, "Master of the universe, You are called compassionate. You should have been compassionate for Your creation." God responded and said, "You are a foolish shepherd. Now you say this?! Why did you not say this at the time I told you that I saw that you were righteous among your generation, or afterward when I said that I will bring a flood upon the people, or afterward when I said to build an ark? I constantly delayed and I said, 'When is he [Noah] going to ask for compassion for the world?'…And now that the world is destroyed, you open your mouth, to cry in front of me, and to ask for supplication?" [Zohar Hashmatot, Bereishit 254b]
We will never know why Noach did not fight to revoke the evil decree and spare the world from destruction. Perhaps, in his heart, Noach believed that the world, harsh and depraved as he knew it, was not suited for redemption. Only the “innocent” animals were meant to survive.
Or perhaps Noach was afraid that the essence of his generation would rub off on him, and he would also be destined for destruction. In this sense, Noach was essentially living in his own “ark” even before the flood and didn’t feel a connection or responsibility to the world that was to be decimated.
It is impossible to know what stopped Noach from requesting G-d’s mercy. Yet we do know that his descendent Avraham Avinu did not suffer from the same complacency regarding his fellow human beings. Ten generations later, we see Avraham pleading with G-d to exercise mercy on the people of Sedom. Avraham opens his eyes to the plight of the innocent and intercedes on their behalf.
After the Flood – Emulating Noach and Avraham
After the waters receded from the face of the earth, Noach sacrifices an offering to G-d. G-d, upon smelling the pleasing scent, makes a fundamental decision:
כא וַיָּרַח יְהוָה, אֶת–רֵיחַ הַנִּיחֹחַ, וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל–לִבּוֹ לֹא–אֹסִף לְקַלֵּל עוֹד אֶת–הָאֲדָמָה בַּעֲבוּר הָאָדָם, כִּי יֵצֶר לֵב הָאָדָם רַע מִנְּעֻרָיו; וְלֹא–אֹסִף עוֹד לְהַכּוֹת אֶת–כָּל–חַי, כַּאֲשֶׁר עָשִׂיתִי
21And the LORD smelled the sweet scent; and the LORD said in His heart: 'I will not again curse the ground any more for man's sake; for the imagination of man's heart is evil from his youth; neither will I again smite any more everything living, as I have done.
כב עֹד, כָּל–יְמֵי הָאָרֶץ: זֶרַע וְקָצִיר וְקֹר וָחֹם וְקַיִץ וָחֹרֶף, וְיוֹם וָלַיְלָה—לֹא יִשְׁבֹּתוּ
22While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease.'
With Noach and the inhabitants of the ark – human, animal, and bird, G-d makes an eternal covenant:
8And God spoke unto Noah, and to his sons with him, saying: 9 'As for Me, behold, I establish My covenant with you, and with your seed after you; 10 and with every living creature that is with you, the fowl, the cattle, and every beast of the earth with you; of all that go out of the ark, even every beast of the earth. 11 And I will establish My covenant with you; neither shall all flesh be cut off any more by the waters of the flood; neither shall there any more be a flood to destroy the earth.' 12 And God said: 'This is the token of the covenant which I make between Me and you and every living creature that is with you, for perpetual generations: 13 I have set My bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between Me and the earth. 14 And it shall come to pass, when I bring clouds over the earth, and the bow is seen in the cloud, 15 that I will remember My covenant, which is between Me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall no more become a flood to destroy all flesh. 16 And the bow shall be in the cloud; and I will look upon it, that I may remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is upon the earth.' 17 And God said unto Noah: 'This is the token of the covenant which I have established between Me and all flesh that is upon the earth.' (Genesis 9:8-17)
G-d decided not to further disrupt the order of the natural world because of man’s behavior, as he says: “While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease.” (Genesis 8:22) This declaration essentially cuts off the spiritual link between human behavior and natural phenomena.
But in this day and age, it appears that this connection has returned. Today, we are experiencing an ecological crisis that is characterized by phenomena such as glacial melting, extended drought (such as here in Israel), accelerated species migration, widespread disease, and more. Most of these problems originate from the unchecked utilization of natural resources by humans and the creation of excess waste and pollution. In many cases, it may be argued that the entire ecological crisis is a direct result of the very societal ills found in the generation of Noach – “and the land was filled with violence/thievery.”
This story does not need to repeat itself. We are all children of Noach, but we are also children of Avraham. From Noach, we received the ability to exercise responsibility for nature and the biodiversity of species, and the willingness to work hard to retain and repair our world. Unfortunately, we also resemble Noach in his ability to separate himself from others so that our righteousness should not be blemished. It is easy to stay secluded at home, ignoring the problems of the world. A bigger challenge is to face the world and embrace its needs as our own.
In this, we should see ourselves as children of Abraham, who calls upon us to be an integral part of the world – to sit at the opening of our tent and invite everyone to join in a life of faith in the good, love of man, and the willingness to fight for justice.
Shabbat Brit Olam
In the summer of 2009, Jewish environmental leaders in North America gathered together to formulate an invitation to the Jewish community at large: A Call to Observe Shabbat Noach, October 23-24, as Global Climate Healing Shabbat. Through targeted emails, website postings, and large-scale events, Jewish environmental leaders mobilized Jewish communities across North America to teach, celebrate, and act in honor of Shabbat Noach. In North American Jewish congregations, observance has included prayers, sermons, study sessions, and community action projects designed to encourage sustainability in the Jewish community.
Here in Israel, Teva Ivri is proud to join Jewish leaders around the world in the observance of Shabbat Noach as a time to raise awareness about environmental challenges and to inspire effective change in Jewish communities. Within the past several years, Shabbat Brit Olam has become an annual national tradition. As of 2010, over 200 communities from all denominations of Judaism observed Shabbat Noah from a Jewish-Environmental perspective, with study groups, lectures, articles in the media, endorsements from public figures, and grassroots action projects.
The annual central event, a lively street festival titled "Before the Flood," takes place in Jerusalem. In 2010, the festival included a parade, an organic market, live music, workshops, and lectures by rabbis and community leaders. To view a video of the festival, click here: Shabbat Noach 2010 in Jerusalem
May we all be as children of the devoted Noach and children of the faithful Avraham. May we all uphold the covenant of the world’s perpetual existence and act for our sakes and the sake of the world around us. And let’s not forget – in today’s reality, we are all in the same ark.