Risking Everything: Noah's Ark in an Age of Climate Change - Rabbi Adina's Kol Nidre Drash
A ship rocking on dark waves, a rainbow overhead, an enormous eye in the center of it all, in place of the sail on the boat. This is the image that appeared in a piece I was painting the other day. The boat reminded me of Noah’s ark - the ship on which animals came aboard, as we sing to our children, two by two to be saved from the impending flood.
We have numerous copies of the story of Noah’s Ark on our bookshelf - beautifully illustrated, brightly colored books. It shocks me every time I read it with my kids curled up on my lap that this, somehow, has become a favorite children’s story, given the incredibly troubling theological questions it raises.
God tells Noah the world is overrun with wickedness and the only way to deal with this is complete destruction of all life on Earth save Noah, his family and a sampling of species. Noah hears the message loud and clear and gets right to work.
It takes Noah years to build the ark, constructing it in the midst of his neighbors. What must they have been thinking as he hauled onto his property huge pieces of wood, as he hammered day and night? What must he have been thinking, going about his business in town, getting lumber and tools, preparing to save himself and his family and two of each animal, but no one and nothing else. What must God have been thinking - the force of the universe preparing to reverse all of creation in this act of massive destruction?
The cute drawings of deer and elephants snuggled side by side inside the ship, nestling down for bed as the rains begin to fall obscure what isn’t pictured: the people scrambling for higher ground as the storm begins to pound, until, at some point, their clinging fingers can no longer grip what they are holding and they are swept away in a rush of water - them, their children, their neighbors - all living beings that they knew. As the waters rose around them and they took their final breaths, did they see in the distance Noah’s ark, floating above the waves? If they did, did they wish they, too, had built a boat to ride through this disaster? Did they wonder why they weren’t asked to ride along? Were they regretful? Mournful? Furious? Unaware?
It took forty days and forty nights to receive Torah on Mount Sinai. It took forty days and forty nights until every mountain on Earth was covered in water. The images in the retelling in children’s books focus our attention on those who were saved, but the text compels us to think about those who weren’t: וַיִּגְוַ֞ע כָּל־בָּשָׂ֣ר ׀ הָרֹמֵ֣שׂ עַל־הָאָ֗רֶץ בָּע֤וֹף וּבַבְּהֵמָה֙ וּבַ֣חַיָּ֔ה וּבְכָל־הַשֶּׁ֖רֶץ הַשֹּׁרֵ֣ץ עַל־הָאָ֑רֶץ וְכֹ֖ל הָאָדָֽם - And all flesh that stirred on earth perished—birds, cattle, beasts, and all the things that swarmed upon the earth, and all mankind (Genesis 7:21). And then the next verse, in case you didn’t get it the first time, כֹּ֡ל אֲשֶׁר֩ נִשְׁמַת־ר֨וּחַ חַיִּ֜ים בְּאַפָּ֗יו מִכֹּ֛ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר בֶּחָֽרָבָ֖ה מֵֽתוּ׃ - All in whose nostrils was the merest breath of life, all that was on dry land, died (Genesis 7:22). And then again, “וַיִּ֜מַח אֶֽת־כָּל־הַיְק֣וּם ׀ אֲשֶׁ֣ר ׀ עַל־פְּנֵ֣י הָֽאֲדָמָ֗ה מֵאָדָ֤ם עַד־בְּהֵמָה֙ עַד־רֶ֙מֶשׂ֙ וְעַד־ע֣וֹף הַשָּׁמַ֔יִם וַיִּמָּח֖וּ מִן־הָאָ֑רֶץ All existence on earth was blotted out—man, cattle, creeping things, and birds of the sky; they were blotted out from the earth. (Genesis 7:23).
It’s no accident that the list of what has been destroyed takes us back just one parsha prior to Genesis - the creation of the world. הָאָדָֽם, בְּהֵמָה, ע֣וֹף, שָּׁמַ֔יִם הָאָ֗רֶץ - the same words are repeated here, now referencing those destroyed. Just one parsha earlier every living creature is brought into being with the refrain of “ki tov” - it was good, it was good, it was good after each day of creation. And then, just as soon as it was, it wasn’t. Just as soon as the world came into being, all that had been created is washed away, gone back into the chaos and void, darkness and waters from which it came.
Have we ever sat with the reality of this story?
Right now, the waters are quite literally rising, all that’s been created may indeed be washed away. The story of the Flood calls out to us to look beneath the fairy tale layers. Over and over again we are seeing how this all could again come to pass: Puerto Rico, the Bahamas, Houston, farmland across the Mississippi Basin. The ruach Elohim - the breath of life that God blows into the first human, animating life, is now blowing down people’s houses, uprooting them from their land, causing their death.
Who are we in this story that is unfolding? Are we Noah, sailing away in a ship of safety while untold numbers of those around us drown? Are we his neighbors, being washed away in destruction as a mere few sail away unscathed? And who is God? Creator? Destroyer? One who declares creation is ki tov (all good) and then decides it is ha-kol rah (all bad)?
It is said that Noah is an “אִ֥ישׁ צַדִּ֛יק תָּמִ֥ים בְּדֹֽרֹתָ֑יו” - a righteous man, blameless in his generation (Genesis 6:9). On the interpretation of this phrase, classical commentators disagree. Some see Noah as truly righteous. He followed God’s command, did as he was told and in so doing saved at least some portion of life on Earth. On the other hand, as Sanhedrin 108a reads the verse, the words “in his generation” modifies the statement. He was righteous, but only in his generation. Had Noah lived at the time of Abraham - who argues with God against God’s plan to destroy the people of Sodom and Gemmorah - he would not have been considered righteous. Noah follows orders, he does not advocate, agitate or even imagine another possibility. In the end, he lives through the flood only to find life unlivable. Once on land, Noah plants a vineyard - a strange choice for the first crop planted post destruction. He then proceeds to make wine and get drunk. In the very next verse, we read of Noah’s death. It seems, at least for Noah, in a world in which all around us is being destroyed, even if we ourselves and our family make it through safe and protected, life becomes no longer worth living.
The Zohar explores Noah’s character, imagining a different ending, one in which Noah is radically changed through the experience of the Flood, “When Noah exited the ark, he opened his eyes and saw the whole world destroyed and began to cry” (Zohar Chadash Parshas Noach 28b). Another piece in the Zohar has Noah pleading to God "Master of the universe, You are called compassionate. You should have been compassionate with Your creation” (Zohar Hashmatot, Bereishit 254b). After living through near-total destruction, now Noah’s heart is opened, now his tears flow forth, now he feels the weight of what’s been lost and that the walls of the ship can’t protect him from the devastation of this new reality.
It took nearly all of life on Earth being wiped out for Noah to open to his tears, to cry out to God, to imagine a different path. Noah, it would seem from the text, until the very end, felt nothing, and so he risked nothing. What if his heart had opened sooner?
Could he - like Abraham - have risked challenging God by arguing for the goodness of humanity? Yes there was widespread evil, but he also knows the people around him - his neighbors, his colleagues, his schoolmates, people who have cooked meals for him and his family, cared for his children, treated his illnesses, danced at his wedding. Questioning God’s judgement means Noah first would have had to risk letting himself feel how important all of these people were to him. And, from there, risk imagining the goodness that must exist within all the communities God was about to destroy.
Could Noah - like Moses - have risked refusing to go along with the plan? When God threatens to destroy the Israelites after their construction of the Golden Calf, Moses stands strong saying to God, “If you are going to destroy all these people, erase my name from your book” (Exodus 32:32). By refusing to be an accomplice, Noah would be risking something else - destabilizing his special status in God’s eyes. This would mean potentially losing his designation as “righteous among his generation,” potentially losing his spot on the ark. It would mean sitting in the truth that no one, not even he, should be valued in God’s eyes above all others.
Could Noah have risked looking inward at himself? If he had he might have seen the essential mixture of goodness and flaws within him, and understood that so too did goodness and flaw exist within every person. He might then have understood that being part of society means that he, too, was part of the problem and potentially part of a solution that would have included more than just himself and his family. Could he have risked opening his heart before it was too late?
Things in the outside world are cracking and falling apart, but so are our hearts, so are our stories. At this time of danger and upheaval - as we face the threat of floods and other disasters - we are being called out of our shells to take risks like we never have before. We do so much to try to minimize risk, but to avoid risking is to avoid living. Risking is what opens us. The alternative is staying safe, closed and stagnant.
The story of the Flood ends with the rainbow, bright and beautiful stretching across the sky, a sign, as God says, that God will never cause this kind of massive destruction to happen again. “God” won’t, but it doesn’t mean we won’t. In our day the devastation of the flood doesn’t hinge on one person arguing - or not - with God for humanity’s salvation. Today, in a way, we are all Noah and God lives within each one of us. We all play a part in our shared destruction and all of us are needed for our collective salvation.
What does righteousness looks like in our generation. What does it call upon us to risk?
It asks us to risk seeing one another clearly and completely - those whom are close to us and those further removed - and to find the places of shared humanity with every person we encounter, no matter how different from us. Had Noah risked this, he might have argued on behalf of humanity against God’s plan of destruction. If we risk this, we might reinvest ourselves in the project of our collective survival.
It asks us to risk recognizing that anything we’ve accomplished, that’s made us who we are, has been supported by countless unseen others whose goodness enables every act of our lives, from the food we eat to the homes we live in, to the clothes we wear. Had Noah risked this, he might have relinquished his special status. If we risk this, we might remove the false separation between us and those around us so that we might authentically work together, uplifting each person’s unique contributions and perspectives.
It asks us to risk questioning the ways we’ve benefited from the dominant narrative and helped keep it in place, and to risk letting in the voices that haven’t been heard. Had Noah risked this, he might have ceded his power and wealth and privilege and, rather than building a separate ship seen himself as being in the same boat along with everyone else. If we risk this, we might begin to center those on the frontlines of Climate Change and those with deep knowledge of how to care for the Earth, especially and indigenous folks.
It asks us to risk creating a society that embraces, celebrates and supports everyone, rather than being designed for the special few. Had Noah risked this, rather than building the ark he might have organized the resistance, alerting his neighbors to the impending threat of the flood and helping to build protections for everyone to mitigate against the worst of what was coming. If we risk this, we might radically shift our priorities, our sense of what’s acceptable, how we use our resources, and who gets to decide. We might reimagine society before the flood waters reshape it for us. And it asks us to risk looking at ourselves squarely in the mirror and seeing what part we play in it all.
I turn back to my painting and notice the full circle that is created between the rainbow arching overhead as it touches down on the waves that splash up to meet it. Together, waves and rainbow complete the circle of consciousness. The waves are the agitation, the danger that jostles us into feeling. The rainbow is the full spectrum of beauty, the flourishing of diversity as every color shimmers, that can only come from disrupting our way of life.
So, tonight, we ask:
How rough do the waves need to be to shatter our complacency?
How stormy must the seas get for us to examine and question the status quo?
How torrential must the rains pour down for us to expand our circle of empathy beyond ourselves and our immediate family?
On Yom Kippur we stand next to one another dressed - if not literally than metaphorically - in burial shrouds, all equal in the eyes of God. We simulate our own death - bringing ourselves to the edge of our existence - so that we can feel the terror of what it would mean to lose everything. We see one another taking risks - shedding tears, opening to forgiveness, doing the deep personal work of change.
As we stand at the precarious edge, poised between between life and death, may this simulated danger be enough to shake us awake. May this day of our death remind us that we love one another and this planet and this life so wildly, so fully, that we’re willing to risk everything to forgo the ultimate destruction.