How Noah Solved the Climate Crisis©
How Noah Solved the Climate Crisis©
Rabbi David Baum
Parashat Noach 5779/2019
There is a little known webpage on the New York Times website called, Op-Eds From the Future. It is a series in which science fiction authors, futurists, philosophers and scientists write Op-Eds that they imagine we might read 10, 20 or even 100 years from now. Here goes my attempt at news from the future:
“Griffin Musk took over his father’s company in 2040, and hasn’t looked back. His goal was to achieve his father’s dream, to leave Earth for Mars. His father famously said, ‘You want to wake up in the morning and think the future is going to be great - and that's what being a spacefaring civilization is all about. It's about believing in the future and thinking that the future will be better than the past. And I can't think of anything more exciting than going out there and being among the stars.’ In 2011, Musk famously pronounced that he would retire on Mars. Unfortunately, he did not achieve his dream, but his son will.
The project was funded by his program of private lunar missions, where billionaires paid a premium to fly to the moon. Griffin worked in secret for decades, concealing his plan to leave planet Earth for Mars, but today, he unveiled his new space ship called, Noah’s Ark 2.0. The ship will hold all the DNA of every species of animal and plant life, but there’s little room for other humans. In fact, only a select few are going with Musk, and his voyage could not have come at a better time for them. As New York City floods and is now uninhabitable, Florida is underwater, California is burning and uninhabitable, and entire populations displaced due to rising sea waters all around the world, the future is bleak for humanity, for animals of all types, and even plant life and our oceans. But there is hope in the stars for our species, led by a new generation and a select few who will continue our legacy."
As we read Parashat Noah, we think that it could never happen. A flood that destroys the entire earth? All life wiped out? How could that be possible? So many people laugh this ancient story off as a fairy tale, but it isn’t as far fetched as it seems.
First, there are two stories in one. In the flood narrative, the floods are caused by two sources, one is rain, the one we are most commonly aware of, but there is another cause. Genesis 7:11 - On this day all the fountains of the great deep were split open and the apertures of the skies were opened. Richard Elliott Friedman writes, “It is a cosmic crisis, in which the very structure of the universe is endangered.” The order of everything is overturned.
God essentially reverses creation, removing the firmament that held the waters in place, and when God removes the order, the deluge floods the earth, and chaos reigns once more.
This week, a new report was issued that the estimates of land that will be covered by seawater by 2050 was changed to include even more land. Major cities will be underwater, displacing an estimated 350 million people. That’s in our lifetime. I fear that one day, we will look at our lives and see that everything we knew will be overturned - the very structures. The earth has undergone five major extinction events; from volcanos to asteroids, to ice ages; none of them were brought on by us, but the overwhelming supermajority of scientists say that the sixth extinction event could be brought on by us, humanity.
I promoted this dvar torah with the following teaser: “How Noah Solved the Climate Crisis.” So how did he solve the climate crisis? Simple - he built an ark and rode out the deluge, ensuring that our species and animal life survive for the future, but not saving the overwhelming majority of life. In many ways, this is the solution Musk and other tech giants and scientists are recommending. It’s time to abandon ship, or earth, and it’s time to find Planet B.
If we look at this urge to move on rather than solve the extinction problem, Noah doesn’t seem as perfect or altruistic as we think he is. At the beginning of our parashah, Noah is described as:
This is the line of Noah.—Noah was a righteous man; he was blameless in his age; Noah walked with God.—
The commentators look at this line and ask the question, had Noah lived during a different time, would he have been looked at as righteous, or was he just righteous because he lived surrounded by so much evil? Alas, it is a matter of opinion, but here’s something interesting - we do not hear Noah speak once during this entire episode. He is absolutely silent. But the Midrash fills in the blanks.
There is a famous Midrash that talks about how God destroyed the world. One might wonder, why would God destroy the world without giving the people time or opportunity to repent? The truth is, the text is unclear as to how long it took for Noah to build the ark even though it seems to be a short amount of time, and the Midrash picks up on this and explains that God did give the people time to repent. As they saw Noah building the ark, they laughed at him and mocked him. Rashi, the famous Medieval commentator, comments on the line, “And the rain was upon the earth” saying, “When God caused the rain to descend, God did so with mercy, so that in the event of their repenting, the rain would be one of blessing. When they did not repent, it turned into a deluge.”
Maybe the Ark was meant to have room for others as well. Maybe they could have prevented their end. But how do we begin?
Whenever I officiate at a marriage for a couple, I ask them, how do you look at yourselves, are you ancestors, or are you descendants? I know, it’s a weird question, and seems kind of obvious, but it’s not to them. Even though they are getting married, they still see themselves as descendants - they are their parents children, but when they stand under the Huppah, everything changes - they begin their journey to becoming ancestors - that they will be responsible for the future.
I believe that this is one of the great lessons of this story. Adam, Eve and Noah are the ancestors not just of people, but of the world.
Just like there are two Noah narratives woven into one story, there are two creation stories that are woven together. In the first creation story, Adam, a stand in for all humanity, and animals, to fill the earth, to be fertile and increase; and God adds another commandment for humanity - to conquer, kivshu, the earth, and God gives human the charge to rule over all the living beings on earth, and all the seed-bearing plants and every tree shall be yours for food. But the second creation story tells a different story.
In the second story, our sacred task is not to conquer but to tend, to be gardeners, to steward and to preserve.
Our Sages took this commandment to the next level, and imagine a scene in which God and the first human beings are touring the Garden of Eden, this newly created and pristine, but raw world. God says, “Look at my works! See how beautiful they are—how excellent! For your sake, I created them all. See to it that you do not spoil and destroy My world; for if you do, there will be no one else to repair it.” (Midrash Kohelet Rabbah, 1 on Ecclesiastes 7:13)
As Jews, we are future-focused people. In the Talmud, we read about the famous story of Choni HaMa’agal, the circle drawer. Choni happens to be walking along, observing the natural world, and he notices an old man, bending over and panting while planting a sapling of a carob tree. Choni goes up the old man and asks him: “how long does it take for this tree to bear fruit?”
The old man stops working for just a moment and tells Choni:
“This tree will take 70 years to produce fruit, but I’m sorry, I can’t talk right now, I don’t have a lot of time,”
Choni was really confused and asked what anyone else would ask:
“Do you really think that you will live 70 more years to taste from the fruits of this tree?”
The old man put down his shovel, looks at Choni and says:
“I found this carob tree in this world, just as my grandfather planted the tree for my sake, so I’m planting this tree for my grandchild.”
The story is often used to teach about the value of providing for future generations, but what might be lost here is that the grandfather is planting a tree. The tree does not just stand in as a metaphor, but speaks about the sacred responsibility that humanity has for earth and all the creatures on our planet - we plant seeds and garden, not just for humanity, but for all life, human, animal and plant.
Noah not only saves his family, but all animal life, and even plant life. The midrash tells us that Noah’s wife, Naamah, played an essential role in preserving ecology by gathering seeds from all the plants. The first thing Noah does after the flood is plant a vineyard.
When I think about Noah the gardener, not the conquerer, I think about the words of the popular song by the Grateful Dead, Eyes of the World, written by Robert Hunter who passed away a couple of weeks ago:
“Wake up to find out that you are the eyes of the world
The heart has its beaches, its homeland and thoughts of its own
Wake now, discover that you are the song that the morning brings”
Imagine our potential if we looked ourselves as the eyes of the world, as the song that the morning brings?
Dr. Richard Elliott Friedman, the noted Biblical scholar and writer, was once teaching the creation and Noah narrative to us at camp. He said something I’ll never forget; he said to us, the young people sitting in front on him, “God told us to multiply and conquer the earth. It’s clear that we have fulfilled this mitzvah, what else do we have to conquer.” We have owned our role as a child of God, a descendent. But the mitzvah we haven’t fulfilled is that second part - to be an ancestor, to be gardeners, to sustain and preserve. Our next great adventure may not be to conquer the stars, but to preserve and perfect what we are standing on today. Our next adventure will take just as much will and sacrifice as our first adventure, maybe more, but it is worth it, and it is our sacred obligation. Now it is our turn to uphold the covenant of the rainbow, the promise to protect all living creatures on earth that we see at the end of the parashah.
The earth has survived five extinction events in her history, and she will survive a sixth one, but we may not. Nevertheless, we still have an obligation to protect, sustain and preserve for not only our future, but the future of all life, and the planet as we know it.
As God commanded us, “Look at my works! See how beautiful they are—how excellent! For your sake I created them all. See to it that you do not spoil and destroy My world; for if you do, there will be no one else to repair it.”