This week’s Torah portion is Parsha Noach, and as the name implies, it contains one of the most beloved of all bible stories, the story of Noah’s ark. The story is especially appealing for children because the animals are such an important part of it, and saving the animals is such a fundamental ethical imperative. It’s one that resonates with the present-day environmentalist movement, the need to save all of the species that are threatened with extinction, to preserve their habitats, protect their ecosystems, and save our biosphere.
The story of the flood also brings to mind the flooding that occurs in our own time, from Hurricane Ida just recently, or Sandy a decade ago, or Katrina down in New Orleans. We know the sea levels are rising, and wildfires have been out of control out west, and down under.
But we also know that natural disasters have always been with us, earthquakes, volcanoes, tornados, tidal waves and tsunamis. We have the illusion that we are safe and secure, and in absolute control of our environment. But mother nature has a way of reminding us who is really in charge. Or in the story of Noah, the reminder comes not from a maternal source, but from the ultimate father figure, which has been, after all, the traditional way that we have thought about God.
Just a few short weeks ago, we observed Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and the High Holy Day liturgy describes God as sitting in judgement of all of creation, even the hosts of heaven, the angels, are judged, and the final verdict is written and then sealed in the Book of Life.
And, when learning of the death of a member of the immediate family, the tradition in Judaism is to say, baruch dayan ha-emet, which means, blessed is the true judge. The prayer recited at the time of burial, the Tziduk Hadin, repeatedly refers to God as the true judge, and emphasizes that God is righteous and just.
This is the role that God plays in the story of Noah. God has judged humanity and found us guilty of violence, corruption and sin. And the true judge delivers the harshest of decrees, sentencing humanity, collectively, to death.
But it is not just us that God condemns, but all life on earth. This is the counterpart of the act of Creation, when at each stage God saw that what was created was good. Now God sees that what was created is evil, and decides that the answer is an act of Destruction.
In the traditional English rendering of Psalm 24, “The earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof; the world and they that dwell therein.” God’s Creation belongs to God, and God has every right to decide what to do with it, even to destroy what God created.
And yet, something does not quite sit right with God’s judgment, does it? Is all of humanity, with the exception of Noah, guilty? Surely there are babies, children, and other innocents who could not possibly be evil.
And even if we assign collective guilt to the human race, what about all of the animals that are drowned in the flood. Sure, Noah saves representatives of each species so that they can be restored afterwards, but what about all of the other ones that didn’t get to go on the ark? Is this really what we would expect of a true judge? Is this what we would call righteousness? Is this justice?
While we could take a page from the Book of Job and answer that God’s reasons are beyond our understanding, in the Reform tradition, we can better understand that these are stories composed by human beings for human beings. Stories about a great flood can be found across many different cultures and times, and they are based on the reality of natural disasters, and the fact that the death and destruction they bring about is indiscriminate, affecting all life, not just human populations.
And for most of human history, these events have been attributed to supernatural sources. You might say that it is human hubris to think that a flood, or earthquake, or volcanic eruption, occurs specifically as a punishment for human wrongdoing. And with the advent of modern science, we now understand that this is not the case.
And yet, along with our collective ego-centrism, our anthropocentrism, there is a sense that we are, in fact, responsible for our environment. In recent times, there is ample evidence that human activity has been drastically altering our planet’s climate, and is the cause of severe weather, hurricanes and heat waves, earthquakes and tornados, floods of biblical proportions due to rising sea levels.
We live in a new geological epoch dubbed the Anthropocene, in which the human race represents the dominant influence on climate, the environment, the planet. We are the cause of the greatest extinction event since the meteor that wiped out the dinosaurs. And stated in moral rather than scientific terms, you might say that it is the result of human sin, human corruption, human evil.
While what is happening at present is unprecedented, there is nothing new about the effects our actions have had on our world. For the past 10,000 years we have been clearing away land for farming and grazing, and thereby destroying habitats. Even in prehistoric times we hunted animals to extinction. That is why there are no wooly mammoths today, not even in Alaska, or Siberia—it’s not because they didn’t make it onto the ark in time.
The story of Noah is a story that highlights human responsibility for the environment, and for protecting and preserving all forms of life.
Noah is described as righteous and blameless in the context of his time. Context is everything, though, especially considering that in Noah’s time everyone else was so very evil. In other words, at that time the bar was set very low.
And while Noah was obedient when God gave him his marching orders, he pales in comparison to Abraham, who tried to talk God out of destroying Sodom and Gommorah. Noah didn’t argue with God, didn’t debate God’s decision, didn’t try to convince God to change his mind. Noah was in a privileged position, chosen to survive the flood, along with his wife, his three sons, and their wives, and he didn’t use his privileged position to try to speak out on behalf of others. He was righteous and blameless for his time, but not for all time.
And even if he was the best of the people of his time, what about his wife? Was she blameless? What about his sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth, and their wives? Were they all so much better than everyone else? Or were they just riding Noah’s coattails?
These questions make sense to us, because we think in terms of individuals, and individual responsibility. But in this story, and for most of human history, it is the family that counts, not the individual. Together as a family, and by extension a clan, a tribe, and a nation, we either sink or swim. In this case literally.
Noah is the father, and not just of his immediate family, but of the entire human family. In biblical terms, we commonly understand that everyone is descended from Adam and Eve, but we tend to forget that everyone is also a descendent of Noah and his wife.
Our tradition emphasizes the idea that all people and all peoples are part of the same family, all of us created in God’s image. Our God is a universal God, the God of all people, not just one family or tribe, not just one country or land. This universal understanding was altogether revolutionary for its time.
Noah’s story is about the end of the world, nearly, but it also represents a second genesis. Water, according to the psychoanalytic interpretation of Sigmund Freud, is symbolic of the womb, and reproduction is very a part of the story, insofar as the animals taken on the ark are in pairs, for mating.
The receding waters and the exit from the ark symbolizes birth. And with this new birth comes change.
For one, God gives us permission to eat animals. Previously we were vegetarians, but now animals are fair game, pun intended. God goes so far as to say that all the animals will live in fear and dread of us, which sounds about right.
The other big change is that Noah plants a vineyard, makes wine, and gets drunk. This is new. In effect, Noah invents alcohol. Opinions vary on whether this has been a good thing or not. It certainly has its costs as well as its benefits. But drinking wine on Shabbat and other holidays is a sacrament. And Benjamin Franklin once wrote that wine is “a constant proof that God loves us, and loves to see us happy.”
But the biggest change of all is that God sets up a covenant with Noah and his descendants, and the rainbow is the sign of that covenant. This precedes the covenant that God makes with Abraham and his descendants, and with Moses and the Israelites at Mount Sinai.
God’s promise to Noah is to never again send a flood to destroy the earth. But God also tells him, “flesh with its soul, its blood, you shall not eat,” and, “whoever sheds the blood of man through man shall his blood be shed, for in the image of God He made man.”
Based on these and other passages, the Talmud lists the Seven Laws of Noah, which apply to all of humanity. The Seven Laws are, do not worship idols, do not curse God, do not murder, do not commit adultery or sexual immorality, do not steal, do not eat flesh from a living animal, and establish courts of justice.
During the 1990s, Orthodox rabbis in Israel started the modern Noahide movement based on these seven laws. Non-Jews who observe the Laws of Noah are referred to as “righteous gentiles,” and Noahide communities can be found here in the US, in Great Britain, in Latin America, the Philippines, Russia, and Nigeria. This movement is the subject of some controversy, in particular when the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel declared, just a few years ago, that non-Jews should not be allowed to live in Israel unless they accept the seven Noahide laws.
Holding aside such questionable views, we return to the universalism of the Torah, and the Jewish religion, that God is the God of all people, that we are all part of the same extended family, and that God entered into a covenant with all of humanity.
At the same time, we recognize that we are divided into different families, tribes, and nations. God sets up a separate covenant with Abraham and his descendants, and with Moses and the Israelites at Sinai, and that covenant applies only to the Jewish people.
The Seven Noahide Laws apply to all of humanity, but the 613 laws and commandments of the Torah only apply to the Jewish people. Non-Jews are not required to follow them, and neither are they excluded from olam ha-ba, the world to come, the final reward of the righteous, in our tradition. In other words, paradise is not a restricted neighborhood.
Our particular covenant requires us to be a nation of priests, with special obligations and constraints that don’t apply to others. But we do not have a monopoly on covenants with God. Different peoples can enter into their own relationship with the divine. Note here that the unit is not the individual, but rather the extended family, which is to say, the tribe or nation or people.
The tension between the universal and the particular is personified by the sons of Noah, Ham, Shem, and Japheth, who become the ancestors of different groups of people, with their descendants spreading out across the world to become different tribes and nations. So, for example, one of the sons of Ham is Canaan, while Shem is the ancestor of the Semitics peoples. Through a long series of begats, generations later, we get from Shem to Terah, the father of Abraham, father-in-law of Sarah, grandfather of Lot. And in this parsha, it is Terah who takes his family from the city of Ur to the land of Canaan.
But before this happens, the parsha tells us the story of the Tower of Babel. It is a brief story with many powerful resonances.
Just as the biblical genealogies take us from Noah, representing all of the human race, to his descendants, who represent the diversity and multiplicity of all the peoples of the earth, so we move from a time when “the entire earth was of one language and uniform words,” to a time when God “confused the language of the entire earth,” “so that one will not understand the language of his companion,” resulting in people being “scattered… upon the face of the entire earth.”
In reality, we don’t know how language evolved, but we do recognize that language is unique to our species, and we do know that the more that people separate and live apart from one another, the more that their speech grows apart, and eventually becomes unintelligible to one another. Once again, this is a story about the tension between the universal and the particular.
In this story, the people say, “come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower, with its top in the heavens, and let us make ourselves a name, lest we be scattered upon the face of the entire earth.” In effect, the tower is intended to be a stairway to heaven, an act of human hubris.
In response, God says, “Lo! They are one people and have one language, and this is what they have commenced to do. Now, will it not be withheld from them, all that they have planned to do?”
This parallels the story of the Garden of Eden, after Adam and Eve have eaten the forbidden fruit, and God says that they have become “like one of us,” meaning God and the angels, knowing good and evil, and God says they must not be allowed to eat from the tree of life, because then we would live forever and no longer be mortal. In these stories, we have the potential to become godlike, and God does not want that to happen.
Is that because, according to the Ten Commandments, “Adonai your God is a jealous God?” Or is it that we cannot be trusted, that we are too often tempted by the evil inclination, or that we simply are sorely lacking in wisdom.
In this parsha, it is through the building of a city and a tower that we seek to extend ourselves all the way up to heaven. According to Midrash, the sin that resulted in God’s punishment was a disregard for human life, that people were essentially enslaved to build the tower, and that the bricks used to build the tower came to be valued more than the lives of the workers. This parallels the Book of Exodus, when the Israelites were enslaved and forced to build cities and monuments for pharaoh.
Forced labor, slave labor, organized human labor to build, or to fight wars, represents the birth of the machine, according to the great 20th century intellectual, Lewis Mumford. The first machines were made up of human parts, only later replaced by more reliable artificial ones. And the mechanical ideology they represent, has been at odds with human freedom and humane values since the dawn of history. To this day, it threatens to erase all traces of the organic ideology that we once adhered to, one that emphasizes humility over hubris, and living in harmony with Creation.
Sigmund Freud declared that our technologies have made us into prosthetic gods, humans combined with machines to wield godlike power. This is our own Tower of Babel, and now it not only our language, but our thinking that is confused, our moral and ethical sense that has become clouded. Our disregard for human life, and all life, is painfully apparent. And the flood is not an act of God, but our own doing.
In the words of the cartoonist Walt Kelly, from the comic strip Pogo, we have met the enemy and he is us.
Noah was righteous in his time, and heeded God’s call. What does it mean to be righteous in our time? What are we called to do? And can we, will we, answer that call? Will we remain scattered and confused, or can we remember that we are all a part of one family, one planet, and one Creation?
The story of Noah’s ark ends with him sending out a raven and a dove. The raven is a symbol of doom, and death. The dove is a symbol of peace, and hope. Which one will prevail this time?
The answer lies with us.