Parshat Noach – The Flood This Time

In parshat Noach God destroys all humanity in a great flood, save for Noach and his family. The text provides us with a reason for God’s wrath, va’timale ha’aretz chamas,1 that the earth was filled with violence. A simple reading may bring to mind a brutish anarchic existence, where men fight, steal and destroy without restraint. Indeed, various rabbinic interpretations explain chamas as connoting theft, murder, sexual sins and kidnapping. One midrashic source, however, proposes that the crimes of the generation of the flood were in fact cunningly small.

“If a countryman brought a basket of vegetables to market, they would edge up to it, one after the other, and abstract a bit, each in itself of petty value, but in a little while the dealer would have none left to sell.”

Theft, especially this kind of petty theft, might be the product of a culture of scarcity, where fierce competition for resources encourages some individuals to take from others. Perhaps surprisingly then, the rabbis insist that the moral depravity of the generation of the flood was due to prevalent abundance and plenty.2 We learn in Bereshit Rabbah that “as a consequence of their extraordinary prosperity they grew insolent. … A single sowing bore a harvest sufficient for the needs of forty years, and by means of magic arts they could compel the very sun and moon to stand ready to do their service.”

In addition to the nature of the sin, an interesting feature of the Noach narrative is the extended wait between God’s warning of imminent destruction and the moment flood waters engulfed the earth. Commanded to make an ark, Noach plants the trees that will be used as wood, taking 120 years3 to complete the construction. This painstakingly slow building regimen was intended to act as a warning sign. Rashi writes that passers by would ask “What is this of yours? And he [Noach] would say to them: ‘in the future God will bring a flood to the world, maybe they will repent.’”4

With the help of the midrash we have a fascinating picture of the generation of the flood. Firstly, that society was in a crisis caused by the cumulative effect of seemingly insignificant individual acts. Secondly, that prosperity and abundance were the root of their societal malaise, and thirdly, that the consequence of their action, a destructive flood, was slow in coming, allowing adequate time for them to change their ways.

This reading of the Noach story provides a striking parallel to our own society in the midst of a global climate change crisis. No single act of environmental sin or indifference has has caused the Earth to heat up, rather it is the combined effect of billions of actions across the globe. Similarly, our affluence and our ability to harness and control the Earth’s resources are the prime cause of our destruction. Finally, in our generation the waters are rising slowly, we still have time to examine our actions.

It is important then to point out that climate change is as much a social justice issue and it is an environmental problem. Like any crisis, the impact of climate change is felt hardest by the weakest and most vulnerable in society. A small rise in sea level has had little impact on most of us, but it has already caused villagers on the far flung Pacific islands of Kiribati, elevation 6 feet, to become environmental refugees.5 On other Pacific islands, and in low lying areas across the globe, arable land is being lost to the ocean, or becoming unusable due to salinity. This in turn endangers the food security of the local population. Of course, flooding is only one aspect of climate change that farmers and must contend with – even a slight change in regional temperature can cause an entire crop to fail.6

What can we do to stop the flood? Confronted with a problem as large and complex as global climate change, it can be difficult to know where to begin. But as we learn from the generation of the flood, small actions make a big impact. So let’s start simple. If you turn down your heating thermostat by two degrees and you will cut both your carbon footprint and your heating bill. Industrial meat production is responsible for an enormous share of greenhouse gasses. Pick a day of the week (or three) to go meatless and you will slash your household’s carbon output significantly. As we learn in Pirkei Avot, mitzvah goreret mitzvah7. Doing one good deed leads to doing others, as each small action changes one’s consciousness and habits.

We read in this weeks haftarah that the flood-waters are called mei Noach8, the waters of Noach, suggesting that although he was sufficiently righteous to be saved, Noach still bore some kind of responsibility for the destruction.9 While our generation does not have the option of retreating to an ark, we do have a chance, and an obligation, to prevent the next flood.

1 Bereshit 6:11
2 Interestingly, this theme is repeated in the story of Sodom and Amorah. We find a society that is morally repugnant, facing Divine destruction seemingly for its rather extreme sinful acts. Again we find a midrash claiming that the each individuals crime was actually very small, and that prosperity rather than desperation was the root of Sodom’s iniquity.
3 120 years is a period typologically representative of a lifetime in Jewish tradition
4 Rashi on Bereshit 6:14, quoting Bereshit Rabbah 31:7
6 Climate Change and Food Security in Pacific Countries, Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN, Rome, 2008
7 Pirkei Avot 4:2
8 Isaiah 54:9
9 Zohar on Isaiah 54:9