We Speak Up against Destruction Despite the Odds
[Rabbi Shoshana Meira Friedman is a writer, mother, activist and song-leader in Boston. She serves as the Director of Professional Development at Hebrew College, and as a rabbinic adviser and ambassador for Dayenu: A Jewish Call to Climate Action. Her song The Tide Is Rising, which she co-wrote with her husband Yotam Schachter, has spread as an anthem in the climate movement. See her website at Rabbishoshana,com This sermon first appeared in Hebrew College’s Speaking Torah Podcast episode, with Bill McKibben and Rabbi Friedman discussing it afterward. Click there to hear it in full voice. ]
By Rabbi Shoshana Meira Friedman.
It astounds me that Noah’s Ark is a classic children’s story. I’m sure you can see the image in your mind’s eye: Giraffes, lions, and zebras, packed side by side in a compact boat floating over a blue sea, with a rainbow and a white dove in the sky above. The scene signals that this is a lovely children’s story, perfect for the zero to five age group. Picture books about Noah abound. My son’s Hannukah menorah is Noah’s ark, the tiny charismatic African megafauna covered more and more each year by cheerfully colored wax.
But if we look even a little deeper, Noah’s Ark is one of the darkest myths we have inherited. Not only do the world’s human beings, creatures and all terrestrial ecosystems perish mere generations after being created. Not only is this obliteration a direct result of the immorality of human beings. But the one person, the one adult in touch with God before the ordeal doesn’t say one word of protest. How is this a children’s story?!
The Torah tells us that Noah was eesh tzaddik, a righteous man, and tamim, blameless or pure in his generation.
In his work The Kedushat Levi, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev, an 18th century Hasidic master answers a question that Jewish sages have posed over the millennia. How can we call Noah righteous when he did nothing to try and prevent the flood?
There is a kind of tzaddik, a kind of righteous person, who serves God, but is so lowly in their own eyes that they think to themselves, "Who am I to pray for God to reverse the bad decree?" and therefore they don’t pray. Now even though Noah was a great and blameless righteous person, he was very small in his own eyes and did not have faith that he was a powerful righteous person with the ability to annul the decree of the Flood.
So, Noah was righteous, but not righteous enough. Not righteous enough to try to talk God out of sending the flood and destroying Creation.
The Kedushat Levi’s answer about Noah speaks directly to us. Each of us alive today is witnessing rising seas, super storms, raging fires, and extinctions – the modern-day Flood of climate change. The upending, in fact, of the very promise God makes to Noah that seasons, seed time, and harvest time will never cease.
And yet, like Noah, most of us stay in a place of inaction, or token actions. We see the global economic machinery at work. We know the entrenched political processes. We learn the grim science. And we are small in our own eyes. Who are we to even try? What can we possibly offer that is worth doing at this late moment?
But as sure as the flood waters recede, the ending of Noah’s story bears a stark warning against such paralysis.
The Noah’s Ark children’s books end with the rainbow and the dove. But the Torah continues. Just three verses past God’s promise, we learn the personal cost of Noah’s behavior.
Genesis 9:20 tells us, “Noah, eesh haAdamah, man of the Earth, planted a vineyard.” Why is Noah called man of the Earth here? What has changed since he was called eesh tzaddik, a righteous man, back in Genesis 6:9?
The medieval Torah commentators suggest he was a master of the Earth, perhaps a skilled cultivator. But I read his new title in light of the second half of the verse, which reads: “[Noah] drank of the wine and became drunk and uncovered himself within his tent.” (Genesis 9:20b).
Why does Noah get drunk? Because as the flood recedes, he is flooded with the understanding that he is a man of the Earth, a man who loved the land and the people and animals he lived among – and yet a man who failed to speak up to God on their behalf. He gets drunk to drown out his feelings – not just the inevitable grief for the suffering of the drowned and all that was lost, but the perhaps more terrible personal anguish of his moral failure to even try to save it all.
The 13th century mystical text, the Zohar Chadash, imagines just this moment before Noah plants the vineyard. We can imagine a stunned Noah, exiting the ark and confronting the magnitude of the destruction that has occurred beneath him and his family as they floated on the waves.
The Zohar Chadash reads:
When Noah came out of the ark, he saw the world completely destroyed. He began crying and said, "God, how could you have done this? Why did you destroy your world?" God replied, "Now you ask me? And when I said, 'All flesh will end' you went into the house of study and didn't do anything to fix that generation of yours!" In contrast to that, [the Zohar Chadash continues], when God told Abraham that God would destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham stood before God and tried to save the wicked people of the city. (Zohar Chadash, Noach:109-112)
In contrast to Noah – who was righteous only when compared to the rest of his corrupt generation – the ancient rabbis laud Abraham as one of the greatest righteous souls among all generations. The mystical tradition associates him with the divine quality of hesed, loving-kindness. Why? Because when God confides in Abraham that God plans to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham speaks up and challenges God:
“Will you sweep away the righteous along with the evildoers?” he asks. “Shall not the Judge of All the Earth do justice?” (Genesis 18:26).
When Noah was 892 years old, Abram-who-would-become-Abraham was born. Their lives overlapped 58 years.
Imagine a young, curious Abram approaching the ancient Noah – as countless others must have done throughout the long 350 years Noah had to live with himself after the flood.
Imagine that through his drunken, traumatized haze, Noah sees something in the young Abram. Something that reminds him of the days he himself walked with God. Noah flashes clairvoyant, seizes Abram’s arm, pulls him close and hisses desperately into his ear: “When the Judge of All the Earth comes to you and tells you He plans destruction, make Him act justly.”
And so decades later, when Sodom and Gomorrah hang in the balance, Abraham asks God “What if there are fifty righteous souls among them? Will you save the cities for the sake of the fifty? What if there are forty-five?”
And God says, “I will not destroy for the sake of those righteous souls. (Genesis 18:24-33).”
Abraham presses on: “What if there are only forty? Thirty? Twenty? Ten?”
Each time, God agrees: “I will not destroy for the sake of those righteous souls.”
And we imagine - Noah’s spirit finally rests in peace.
But it turns out there weren’t ten righteous souls in Sodom and Gomorrah, and the cities were destroyed.
Just as Abraham did not know what would happen when he spoke up to God, we do not know the outcome of our efforts to prevent the worst of climate change. Millions of us can dedicate our bodies, our savings, our time, our lives to the fight for climate justice, and we may still not keep warming to livable levels. But we are descended from ancestors who knew how to redefine hope, how to redefine success. Loud as the thunder of forty nights, Jewish tradition calls to us. There is no ambiguity. Despite the odds, we are called to be Abraham and not Noah.
And Abraham speaks to us, with the intimacy of myths that are never past, but only just behind the veil. Listen.
“My beloved children,” he is saying.
“If there is a fifty percent chance of averting the impending catastrophes, will you try?
“My sweet blessings, what if your odds are forty percent?
Will you put your money, your time, your political capital behind the climate movement then?
“My shining stars of the night, my golden grains of sand,
what if your chances are thirty percent? Or twenty?
As the species fall to the fossil record,
will you put your body in the way of this madness?
Your money out of the banks that fund destruction?
“As the storms come faster and more furious,
if your odds are ten percent, five percent, one percent,
will you still resist in the streets, in the voting booths, in the halls of power?
“Even as you adapt, even as you grieve,
even as you witness Nature’s green resilience
as She turns again into something new,
will you be among the righteous who challenge destruction, despite the odds?”