Genesis We Are All Noah Now
On Sept. 21, I joined 400,000 people on the streets of New York City for the People’s Climate March. Painted with the words “We are all Noah now” and “People of faith call for climate action,” a large wooden ark rolled along as part of the interfaith section of the colorful throngs. Jews marched with shofars, the rams’ horn associated with the High Holy Days and their themes of repentance and renewal. The shofar was sounded over and over again from the ark’s deck.
There is no Torah portion more tragically relevant to our generation than Noah. “The land was destructively corrupt before God,” says Genesis 6:13; “the land was filled with the violence of wrongdoing.” The consequence of this perversion does not need any stretch of metaphor or quotation marks to make it fit the headlines of our own age. Superstorms come, sea levels rise and there is massive loss of life attributed to climate change — with the threat of much more.
Biblical scholars point out that Noah is in many ways a second Creation story. Indeed, much of the language reflects the first chapter of Genesis, including the repetition of words like “variety,” “sky,” “creeping things” and “breath” before the flood, and the injunction to Noah to “be fruitful and multiply” afterwards. But in order for there to be a second Creation, the first one is undone: The skies darken to hide the light, the waters come together to cover the land, the plants and animals — except for those lucky enough to be on the ark — perish. So many of this Torah portion’s particulars echo the message of climate change prophet Bill McKibben, who declaims to audiences today that “we are running Genesis in reverse.”
We are living in Noah times. Like Noah, who voices no dissent when God shares the plan to destroy the world, our global civilization failed to act when we first heard the warnings about global warming. I have vivid memories of learning about the greenhouse effect when I was in third grade. I was at once horrified by the prospect, and heartened that human beings had the power to do something about it. Surely we would fix this, my 9-year-old mind calmly believed. How could this not be solved by the time I was a grown-up?
When I studied environmental studies in college, my class learned that we had about 10 years before the climate crisis was irreversible. Those 10 years have passed. I feel great personal grief, failure and frustration that so little has been done on a global scale in the past decade, even as awareness and citizen concern have grown.
For now, whether we are on the ark or drowning depends in part on where on the planet we live and on the economic conditions around us; the disproportionate burden of climate change on people of color and nonhuman species, for example, is well documented. And many of us are peering aghast over the edge of the ark, seeing the consequences of inaction, and hoping not only to survive the ordeal, but to save everyone and everything we can.
To live in Noah times means practicing radical hope amid the burden of consequences. It means building the largest possible ark of disaster readiness. It means remembering that the rainbow, dove and olive branch — these now-universal symbols of hope — come to us from the story of the near-destruction of all life on Earth.
The Noam Elimelech, an 18th-century Hasidic master, asks why Genesis 6:9 reads, “Noah was a righteous man; he was blameless in his generations.” Why the plural “generations”? Each generation, he says, is “connected at its root to a specific mitzvah [divine directive] which it needs to establish more than the others .” Noah, who lived 950 years, “held and established the root mitzvah that was specific to [each] generation.” To live in Noah times, then, means to be awake to the great calling of our own generation, to respond with radical hope and collective action to the crisis of climate change.
In the mystical Jewish tradition, a “tzaddik,” a righteous person, has the power to protest a negative divine decree. The Kedushat Levi, another 18th-century Hasidic master, looks closely at Noah being called a tzaddik: “Now even though Noah was a great and blameless tzaddik, he was very small in his own eyes and did not have faith that he was a powerful tzaddik with the ability to annul the decree of the flood.” How many times have we each felt paralyzed in the face of the facts of climate change? Yet to live in Noah times — and to learn from Noah’s own mistakes — means realizing we must not emulate his smallness, but rather strive to be the kind of people who believe we have the power to do no less than shape the future of the world. In the words of a volunteer for Citizen’s Climate Lobby, “Every victory we have against our own powerlessness rocks the world.” While we don’t know to what extent we will be successful, it is the greatest task of our generation to overcome our belief that we have no power to make a difference — and to make every effort to do so.
After the flood, Noah is called “ish ha’adamah,”a man of the soil. But the Zohar, Jewish mysticism’s core text, interprets “ish” in its familial meaning, as husband. In this reading, Noah becomes the husband of the Earth, the lover and caretaker of the created world — another challenge to us in Noah times, and one in which we can emulate Noah rather than learning from his mistakes.
I am hopeful. I am hopeful because more than one in every 1,000 Americans took to the streets on Sept. 21, and because there were 2,646 solidarity events that day in 162 countries. I am hopeful because what was once a fringe concern has become a major international movement. With our help, and our hope, the tide is slowly turning.
For information on getting involved in climate action, check out:
Shoshana Meira Friedman teaches at JCDS, Boston’s Jewish Community Day School, and is rabbi-in-residence at Congregation Shirat Hayam in Swampscott, Mass.