Here’s the thing I can’t get past this year. God tells Noah that the human experiment has failed. Humanity has become corrupt and lawless. So God instructs Noah to build an ark and use it to rescue his own family and all the animals of the earth. And after some description of what the ark is supposed to look like, Torah tells us, “Noah did so; just as God commanded him, so he did.”
Why would I have a problem with Noah doing exactly what God told him to do? Imagine a great environmental crisis is coming, and all living beings on Earth are going to perish. So you build a spaceship and you take a genetic seedbank and your own family and you set off into space. But what about all of the other human beings? (And for that matter, the other beings on Earth, too?)
Later in our ancestral story we’ll meet Avraham. And God tells Avraham that God plans to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gemorrah. (We’ll talk another week about their fundamental sin, which seems to have been a combination of selfishness, violence, and rape.) Hearing this, Avraham argues with God. He bargains: what if I can find you 50 good people? 45? 35? Even 10!
Avraham pleads with God to find a way to spare a couple of towns. In contrast, Noah learns that God is going to wipe out literally every other human being, animal, and plant on the surface of the earth, and he doesn’t say a thing. And maybe this is why our sages argue about what Torah means when it says that Noah was a righteous man in his generation. Personally I like Rashi’s second theory:
בדורותיו IN HIS GENERATIONS — Some of our Rabbis explain it (this word) to his credit: he was righteous even in his generation; it follows that had he lived in a generation of righteous people he would have been even more righteous owing to the force of good example. Others, however, explain it to his discredit: in comparison with his own generation he was accounted righteous, but had he lived in the generation of Abraham he would have been accounted as of no importance (cf. Sanhedrin 108a).
This may be one reason why we don’t consider Noah to be the first Jew, though Noah heard directly from God and followed God’s instructions to a T. To be a Jew is to question, to argue, to push back when something is unethical. To be a Jew is to be Yisrael, a Godwrestler — one who wrestles with the Holy, with our texts and traditions, with what’s right and what’s wrong: not a silent follower.
To be clear, I don’t believe that the climate crisis is a punishment for human wickedness the way Torah says that the Flood was. The climate crisis is the natural consequence of generations of collective human choices made by the industrialized world. We broke it, and we’re going to have to fix it. But I do believe that the story of Noach has something to teach us today, to wit: don’t be like Noah.
Noah protected his own family. I have empathy for that. It’s natural to want to save our own loved ones. But that should be the start of our work, not the whole of it. And I believe that Judaism asks of us much more than that. Torah calls us to pursue justice, literally to chase it or run after it. And in the words of my friend R. Mike Moskowitz, justice can’t be for “just us”.
R. Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev teaches that that because Noah was so bad at tochecha — rebuke, as in telling one’s fellow human beings that they are acting unethically — Noah’s soul was reincarnated into Moses… who spent most of his life wandering in the wilderness with the children of Israel, grousing at them for being stiff-necked and stubborn, rebuking them every time they made a poor choice!
I love the idea that our souls return to this world as many times as they need, to learn the things they most need to learn. Have you ever heard someone say, “What did I do in my last life to deserve this?” It’s a kind of pop culture version of karma. Jewish tradition frames repeated lifetimes not as punishments (e.g. “I screwed up last time so now I gotta do it again”) but as opportunities for growth.
What are the qualities we need to strengthen, the patterns we need to shed — and how can we each use that spiritual curriculum in service of helping each other? Noah could have argued with God, or urged his fellow human beings to make better choices, or helped other people build boats too — but he built a boat for his own family and the menagerie, and kept to himself. I believe we can do better.
In this era of climate crisis and misinformation, we have to do better. The mitzvah most oft-repeated in Torah is “love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Torah tells us to feed the hungry, to pay fair wages, to meet the needs of the disempowered. So no, building a boat (or a spaceship) just for us isn’t sufficient. Our task is to care about each other — to care for each other.
And in so doing, together we can build a better world.
This is the d’varling that Rabbi Rachel offered at Shabbat morning services at Congregation Beth Israel of the Berkshires (cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.)
Shared with extra gratitude to the Bayit Board of Directors for Torah study this week.