The Drowned World: Parshat Noah and the Face of G-d

Sharon October 23rd, 2009

Drowning is not so pitiful

As the attempt to rise

Three times, ’tis said, a sinking man

Comes up to face the skies,

And then declines forever

To that abhorred abode,

Where hope and he part company—

For he is grasped of God.

The Maker’s cordial visage,

However good to see,

Is shunned, we must admit it,

Like an adversity. - Emily Dickinson

This is the second of three pieces for world Climate Action Day/Global Healing Shabbat, on the relationship of Parshat Noah to climate change awareness and response.  A Rabbi asked me to write a model sermon, and although I lack sufficient Jewish learning to do as good a job as I suspect she will, here it is.   The third piece will comprise part of my talk on climate change at Mercer University’s “Caring for Creation”  conference, and I’ll publish it here after I get back from Georgia, in early November (In all three cases, what’s most important to me about this is the central question – what kind of people are we, both individually and collectively?

The ark was not politically feasible, it was merely necessary.  Had Noah had something less than the voice of G-d to order him, or had he required the aid and consent of his neighbors, what are the odds that the ark would have been built?  Even had Noah been the driving force alone, it is hard to imagine the completion of the ark – how does an agrarian farmer otherwise find the time to build so vast a creation, to begin, as we are told, from the planting of the cedar trees that would make the boat possible, and go forward.  In the face of uncertainty, he must have faltered.  The ark could only be possible because it is so very necessary.

I was struck by this thought when I read the article about the results of Oxford’s “Four Degrees” conference, particularly the Obama administration’s rejection of what is needed because of the problem of political reality:

“Four degrees of warming would be hotter than any time in the last 30 million years and it could happen as soon as 2060….’Political reality must be grounded in physical reality or it is totally useless,’ John Schellenhuber, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research told the audience.

Schellnhuber recently briefed US officials from the Barack Obama administration, but he says they chided him that his findings ‘were not grounded in political reality’ and that ‘the Senate will never agree to this.’

He told them that the US must reduce its current 20 tonnes of carbon emissions per person to zero tonnes per person by 2020…”

This is the rapidly emerging consensus among major climate scientists – that we have wildly underestimated climate sensitivity and that mitigating climate change will be incredibly difficult – not impossible, just incredibly difficult. Zero tonnes per person sounds impossible, but it is not – it allows for a gradual build-out of renewable energies so that we can preserve what is most essential, and a lifestyle that is completely viable, if hard to remember.  We have only to look back a few hundred years, to find a humanity where zero tonnes was the norm – and with those renewables, with the best of modernity, there’s every hope for a life that is viable, if hard for most of us to imagine.

It is also the rapidly emerging consensus of nations that there’ not going to do any such thing. China has recently announced that it saw 4 degrees as a much more reasonable target anyway, and even the campaign to focus attention on the goal of 350 ppm has found it incredibly difficult to affect policy – we’re still making policy arrangements based on old science and politics, not on the physical reality.   A recent study found that if all the most rigorous extant policies contemplated in every nation in the world were to be implemented, we’d still cross the 2 degree tipping point and head on to a world of 4 degrees. 

We are not living in the world of material realities – the science is increasingly clear, the world scientific consensus increasingly universal.  Nor are we living in the realm of G-d’s law, or moral reality. I know of no faith that would permit us to do the harm we will do by unchecked climate change – no faith that would permit us kill those we will kill by our way of life, no faith that would permit us to destroy all we would destroy.  Nor would anyone bound by a moral system that recognizes the rights of others to live, the rights of others to have a world to live in permit this.  All faiths and all secular moral systems do not agree on much, but in this, they are utterly united.

Religious life is, at its root, an attempt to set limits on our actions within the world. Implicitly, all faiths must acknowledge that we can murder, we can destroy, we can rape, we can burn.  And thus, we set to restricting our rights to do so – and all faiths also restrict how we use our material world, recognizing that some portion of it belongs to G-d.  Thus, we Jews are bound to leave a share of our fields to feed the birds, and another to the world’s poor.  Thus we are bound to the shmitta, to leave fields fallow, to restore the land.  Thus we are bound to the Sabbath, to the idea that every human being has a space in which she or he should be fully free.  Thus we are bound to the Jubilee, which says that none of us have the right to an unjust share of wealth in perpetuity – all these things are only partly ours, the other part belongs to G-d, and he requires that we recognize those limits.  The rules are different in other faiths, but they share the characteristic of trying to limit our harm, and to make us recognize our place in the order of creation. 

I would argue that for those of us who feel ourselves bound to a faith, failing to act on material realities is not merely an act of surpassing foolishness, or even an act of moral evil (for allowing others to die unnecessarily, and creating the conditions that will kill them is, in every religious system, a profound evil, and the projected death toll for  a four degree scenario exceeds 1 billion human lives.)  There’s more to it – to deny the material realities of the biological world, is also a rejection of G-d.

This essay evolved from two strains of thought. The first one goes back to my undergraduate days, when I struggled to parse out my analysis of Paradise lost for my senior thesis – the questions that Milton raised about the relationship between G-d and others stayed with me for years – they played a part in my doctoral dissertation as well, and have intruded in many ways into my religious life.  The second comes from a discussion we had about Parshat Noah on the peak oil interfaith discussion list.  The discussion ranged over a wide variety of perspecctives and thoughts on Noah, including how we read Isaiah 54:9 and G-d’s promise to never again sweep away the world in a great flood.  But my thinking about this was particularly struck by the question asked by Phillip Harris – does G-d have a stake here?  Does G-d risk anything?

My answer to this is yes, that we see in the first two portions of the Torah – from “In the Beginning”  through the flood, the story of human failure – of a people moving rapidly from the first sin to completing the catalogue of human sins, both sexual (the Nephilim) and violent (Lamekh), but also a story of G-d’s sense of loss. 

The G-d of the old Testament/Torah may be ineffable, but he’s also capable of a great deal of emotion – satisfaction and pleasure (and G-d saw that it was very good) and also anger and sorrow (Isaiah 54 6 tells us that G-d related to us as a wife, forsaken and grieved in spirit, who was refused; while 54:8 tells us that G-d “in a little wrath” turned away from us). 

Why is G-d so distressed that we have failed?  G-d may be omnipotent, but having endowed us with the capacity to choose – to choose to sin, to choose not to, to choose to follow G-d or not, he has the reaction that most parents have to rebellious and ill behaved children – a sense of rejection and loss.  G-d created the conditions for goodness and set us free.  And we screwed up. 

More importantly, G-d’s omnipotence does not create invulnerability in the realm of emotion, meaning, reputation - sure, G-d can start again and make anything he wants, but again, like all parents, he wants *these* children, he cannot escape his investment in us.  Nor can he escape the fact that he desperately wants us to remember and recognize him – the wicked, we are told in the Parsha, had ceased to recall G-d.  Only Noah remembered G-d.

It is the most natural desire imagined, one we reproduce ourselves when we create life – in our children.  We long for acknowledgement, for relationship. G-d is manifestly upset to have lost this with us – and he responds by turning away, by closing the relationship to all but one man.

Now there’s some question about how good a person Noah is – the Torah says that Noah is righteous “among his generation” which isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement.  The great Rabbinical commentator Rashi suggests that in fact, Noah wasn’t all that special.  The modern commentator Aviva Zornberg argues that it is the time in the ark, tending G-d’s creation, serving the animals – reversing the hierarchy of dominion, and demonstrating by that service that having a special place in creation is a mark of responsibility for creation, rather than a free hand at its destruction –  that makes Noah righteous – not his actions before the rain began to fall. 

At a minimum, all of us have to ask why Noah didn’t do as Abraham did, and defend his generation, defend the innocent, at least the children who could not have been given over wholly to wickedness.  Abraham has the nerve to argue with G-d in the defense of humanity.  In all the Parshah, Noah never speaks. 

But G-d saves Noah anyway, whether he was truly good or simply better than a bad lot, G-d  saves him and his family.   G-d does not start wholly over.  Instead, G-d gives Noah and his family a great task – to shepherd his creations through a terrible event, to preserve them and rebuild them, and locks them in a dark piace filled with lions and bears, and demands that they endure, and hopes they will come out transformed.

We are, at least in part, I think, meant to doubt the outcome – whether it was a good idea for G-d to preserve Noah and his family, in the hopes that a humanity would follow that would remember him.   And at the end, G-d elects to promise that he will never destroy the whole world by flood again – we are told in Isaiah that his anger led G-d to turn his face away from us, to deny us, to cease to recognize us.  He promises he will never do so again.

Some people take Isaiah 54 to mean that because G-d promised never again to send a great flood, that means that the worst outcomes of climate change cannot occur.  I would strongly disagree – G-d promised that G-d would never turn his face away from us again. But he did nothing to ensure that we would not turn our faces away from G-d, and destroy the earth’s fertility and promise ourselves.  This was part and parcel of keeping Noah – and thus, the possibility that we might reject the G-d who loves us again.  We have that choice -  we can reject G-d so badly that we allow billions of beloved humans to die.  We can reject the limits G-d sets upon us so clearly that we can bring about a great flood, or the fire next time as drought and wildfire devour our land and turn fertile pasture to desert. 

G-d endured his own crisis in Noah – the crisis of betrayal – the metaphor in Isaiah, of a wife who turns to her husband and is refused, forsaken is a startling way of describing G-d’s sense of loss when we rejected G-d.  Anyone who has ever loved another can imagine the shocking pain of that gesture.  And G-d chose, having endured it, to promise that no matter what we do, he will never turn his face from us again. 

But has humanity had such a moment?  This first covenant is on G-d’s side alone, a promise to Noah and his descendents.  Did we ever choose never to turn our face away from G-d again?  Is it possible that right now, in this moment, as we stand on the brink of another flood, we are now being asked to make the same choice that G-d made – to commit to an eternity of acknowledgement, or to destruction beyond measure.

We have imagined that we could have G-d, we could pray to G-d, we could remember G-d, without fully remembering or recognizing G-d’s creation – without service to the creatures of the world.  We have imagined that we could love G-d without loving his world, or even without knowing it.  We have imagined that G-d’s laws, which carefully describe the ways that we are morally *responsible* for all plant and animal life, and our entire home, do not really, truly apply to us.  But, of course, they do, and we stand at a crossroads, very nearly our final moment to decide whether we acknowledge that responsibility.

And thus, we are like those politicians who say “a hard rain is going to fall?  Well, that’s not something we can deal with politically, so give us a different answer.”  The reality is the same, and we are choosing, even if we choose to pretend there is no choice.  No matter how little we like the choices we are given, they are our choices - ark or drowning.  The rain falls whether we choose to believe it will fall or not.  The consequences of our actions exist whether they are politically feasible or not.  The deaths of human beings, alive, beloved of G-d are on our hands whether we choose to acknowledge them or not.  We betray G-d in our rejection of his material realities, and in our rejection of G-d’s moral realities.

In a basic sense all of the first portion of the Torah can be said to say this – we are a creation of G-d.  We are part and parcel of creation, bound by the same laws – physical and moral – as the rest of it.  We owe a share and a responsibility to others – to other human beings, to the birds of the air and the fish of the sea and all of the creatures that G-d pronounced “tov.”  Neither our moral responsibility – to save lives, rather than take them, to protect animals rather than destroy them, to love one another as G-d loves us, to preserve the land rather than rape it – nor the laws of physics are up for discussion. 

The story of Noah and Isaiah 54 promise us that G-d will never again turn his face from us – no matter how angry at the destruction we wreak.  No matter how sorrowful, at the harm we do to ourselves and our children.  No matter how much pain we give G-d, G-d will watch, and his face will be turned towards us, like a father to angry teenagers, like a mother to children that no longer want her. 

Now is our chance – perhaps our very last chance to live in a world that bears any resemblance at all to the one in which human beings learned their first and most profound lessons.  We too have to choose – will we keep our faces turned to G-d, and live with our material realities, pay any price, do whatever is needed to preserve our future and fulfill our responsibilities?  Or will we turn away finally, and entirely from G-d, leaving ourselves with an empty faith, divorced from the world into which we were created, and so far distant from G-d that we cannot see if G-d weeps,  for the rain that is coming down.

Shalom,

Sharon

18 Responses to “The Drowned World: Parshat Noah and the Face of G-d”

  1. Steveon 23 Oct 2009 at 12:38 pm

    Sigh.

    I read your blog, Sharon, to be reminded of this. I try to make changes in my life that minimize my impact and simplify my life. I own no car, no television. To my friends’ amazement, I haven’t use my air conditioner over the past three summers (I’ve now decided that I can get rid of it). I keep a small apartment instead of a large home that requires more energy to heat. I usually move about my home at night by the light of one or two twenty-watt bulbs.

    But I can’t follow you all the way. I have HIV and I require my monthly prescriptions to maintain my health. When I reflect upon the threats that face us, it scares me because if our institutions fail and the drugs aren’t available to me, I will die. So I keep my job with the health insurance, fantasizing about what might have been and dreading what may be.

    I know that I’m in no way special in this regard — many people require daily medicines or medical care to stay alive. It just gives me pause when you make such strong moral arguments — arguments that I agree with — and I can’t live that talk.

    But I’ll continue to whittle away what I can. It looks like lots more people are whittling, too.

  2. Sharonon 23 Oct 2009 at 4:26 pm

    Steve, the whole point of public resources is to protect people – HIV drugs and the care of the ill are what those renewable resources are for. For someone like me, who is healthy, the answer is that I’ve got to find a way to use less so that those who are not can have a little more. The truth is that even in an effectively zero carbon world (which isn’t the same as using no energy) there are resources enough to meet basic needs.

    Sharon

  3. Susan Bon 23 Oct 2009 at 6:45 pm

    Sharon,
    Well done and quite amazing.
    Where is the place for Messiah in your faith?
    Susan

  4. Rayeon 23 Oct 2009 at 7:47 pm

    Sharon, Thanks so much! You put my thought and inner feelings into words, then go beyond and carry it to the next step.

    As I finished reading the essay, I “heard” this Christian hymn (if you want to listen, it is on a Doc Watson album, Praying Ground)

    Did Christ o’er sinners weep?
    Then shall our cheeks be dry?
    Let floods of penitential grief
    spring forth from every eye.

    The Son of God in tears
    The blessed angels see.
    Those tears were shed for everyone
    They were shed for even me.

    Pax et lux

  5. Kate-Bon 23 Oct 2009 at 8:15 pm

    Steve,

    My ex-husband did not undergo any medical treatment for his HIV/AIDS. I tell you plain and simple that there is hardly a moment since his death that my children and I do not wish he had. I have seen that walk and I hope you never give pause for your ability to access medical care.

    Regards

  6. aimeeon 23 Oct 2009 at 8:38 pm

    Sharon
    this is very beautiful, very well thought out and very moving. Thank you. I’m going to forward it to my sister.

  7. Ed Strakeron 23 Oct 2009 at 9:59 pm

    The sad reality is that the Obama administration is right. The political reality is that zero carbon by 2020 is impossible. It’s probably also thermodynamically impossible to get there even if we wanted to, and avoid a massive die-off in the process. Sure, a select few people in their self-sufficient eartships can do it, but not the teaming masses in the cities. No way, no how, and certainly not that fast. It’s simply a bridge too far.

    So if that’s what it takes, then let’s just accept that a GW-induced die off is written in stone and be done with it.

  8. ceceliaon 23 Oct 2009 at 10:59 pm

    I mentioned before that I was inspired by a post of yours to pray for our world its peoples its plants and trees and other living creatures. Once again Sharon you have inspired me and your words have given me hope. Surely you were open to the presence of God when you wrote this –

    Is it possible to disseminate this further?

    In the current political climate Obama is right – but that environment can change – more people can come to see that we must act to cherish all of creation – so that leaders can feel they will not be condemned for doing what is necessary. I hope that everyone who reads or hears this marvelous call will make that change possible.

    Thank you Sharon.

  9. Vicky in VAon 24 Oct 2009 at 8:28 am

    Sharon,
    Have you read A Conservationist Manifesto by Scott Russell Sanders?
    He has a great essay on building arks.
    I got the chance to see him speak a few weeks ago and he read that section of the book. His point was that there are many kinds of arks…homesteads, universities, communities, seed banks and so on. He also talked about how G-d wanted ALL creatures on the ark, not just the tasty ones or the ones that didn’t bite us and that the ark wasn’t for man but rather for all of creation.

    Another essay dealt with the stories that we hear over and over and that form our culture. He didn’t have a great answer as to how to get ‘non-consumer’ messages delivered to the masses (’cause that’s all most of us get now) but, I found your Ark fiction inspiring. What if those kinds of ideas were what most folks heard most of the time?
    Vicky in VA

  10. Lornaon 24 Oct 2009 at 11:05 am

    Amen and thank you Sharon. One of your best posts ever.

  11. tarynkayon 24 Oct 2009 at 12:30 pm

    this is a beautiful sermon, thank you for sharing it. on the question of political impossibility: isn’t it? how do we accomplish going from 20 tonnes per person to 0 tonnes in ten years without fascism? it would obviously be great if we all collectively and independently decided to give up our luxuries and live simply. but how does the government make us do that? i heard on the radio that california is talking about banning certain big screen tvs b/c they consume so much energy. and people were just enraged that such a ban could be passed, irate that anyone could contemplate keeping giant tvs off the market. and we’re talking about tvs! not even all tvs- just certain really giant ones. so yeah, i agree about the necessity of doing this, i am continually working on doing this, but how do we accomplish it on a nation-wide, every person “teeming masses” kind of scale?

  12. BettyJaneon 24 Oct 2009 at 6:01 pm

    Obama has declared health emergency/crises. We can expect changes in emergency care, public gatherings. Now is the time to recheck our own emergency plans and supplies, people contact lists and what ifs.
    If you begin feeling ill, take the S&S seriously. Take care of yourselves and seek help if necessary.

  13. Lindseyon 24 Oct 2009 at 8:22 pm

    I totally agree with you on the whole of this post except for one thing:

    You said: “Religious life is, at its root, an attempt to set limits on our actions within the world”

    I (personally, YMMV) don’t believe religious life exists to give us limits and rules. I think it begins, or should begin with a relationship experience to reverence and worship our G-d…whichever G-d that may or may not be for you. Then the rules flow out of that existence. Any relationship has rules. I just don’t think we began with the rules.

    The “rules” are so often OUR doing, in trying to shape a black and white relationship out of a very big grey area!

  14. AnneTon 25 Oct 2009 at 9:06 am

    “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, resilience, and beauty of the commonwealth of life. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” — from Right Relationship: Building a Whole Earth Economy by Peter G. Brown and Geoffey Garver.

    Hard words to live by, when you think about it, but the only real moral choice we have. But if you start with baby steps, it is amazing how far and quickly you will go over the span of a few years.

    I’m a Quaker and this book was written by Quakers (Religious Society of Friends). Our eco-study group is reading this book this year, as is Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (PYM). PYM has a study guide on it: http://www.pym.org/education/onebook. I’ll probably be doing a weekend workshop on it in the spring. It’s a great, approachable resource for raising awareness in this area and formulating individual and group action plans to better live on this earth.

  15. Anonymouson 25 Oct 2009 at 3:13 pm

    Re above: You said: “Religious life is, at its root, an attempt to set limits on our actions within the world”

    Perhaps this could be summed up as “right relationship” to all aspects of our existence, the Absolute and the entire Cosmos.

    Now if we could only persuade the elites who are keeping us in the Empire-and-war paradigm. The wealth being wasted on Empire and war, and the terrible psychological and spiritual damage being done to the populations of these countries and to our soldiers, is a huge spiritual and resource drain on this country and, in fact, the whole world, a literal throwing-away of lives and resources that could be used for the Great Transition we now face.

    It was quite knowable, in 2002, that we could not afford to waste anymore wealth on war, that the proposed wars would be a disaster for the U.S. and the world, and yet few listened. Oh well.

    As an example, it has been reported that the net cost for a gallon of gasoline used by our armed forces in Afghanistan comes to $400.00 per gallon! This is madness!

    Besides individual and grass-roots efforts, we need national and international leadership that will work to change course and re-direct the wealth of the world toward funding the Great Transition, and so I advocate that we also, besides whatever else we are doing, need to keep spreading the word louder and louder: No More War! No More Empire! Hint: It needs to get loud enough to dominate the national discourse.

  16. Josephon 25 Oct 2009 at 3:15 pm

    Forgot to put my name on the above post. Joseph

  17. Grandma Mision 25 Oct 2009 at 3:50 pm

    I’m having trouble with balance and patience…. My life is “not grounded in political reality” – nor is my agreement totally with this article and my spiritual beliefs. Usually when I read your posts I am supported, refreshed, encouraged, invigorated. This time (as happens occasionally) I feel discouraged and frustrated. Not that I would change or diminish a single word of what you’ve said. This piece is brilliant. It must be me. But I picked up the same feeling with “Steve” and a few others’ comments.

    I feel like a mouse in a maze. A maze NOT of my own making, but living in it anyway. I can’t seem to get out. There are a few escape routes in this maze but the openings are so tiny that my FAT SELF (physically, emotionally, spiritually, societally) can’t squeeze through no matter how much I want to be on the other side! I don’t mean to fatten myself with all those goodies that are constantly thrust before me. Sheesh, I’d be happy with just a carrot… but chocolates, donuts, preservatives, and junk is all I’m provided and encouraged to overconsume.

    I feel like I’m constantly chasing my tail, to avoid eating/enjoying, trying to run off the extra pounds of too much consumerism, energy, etc. All I do is get tired, exhausted and I still don’t fit through those little holes. Or there is some big “fatty” standing in front of my escape route (i.e. some huge corportation or family obligation or my own illness and disability).

    I’m not saying that I’m feeling hopeless or helpless. Just frustrated. There is nothing much that I can do to stem the tsunami coming my way. I’m hanging all my clothes to dry outside, where I can hear the neighbors gunning and running their giant truck motors in the yard (going nowhere) for hours at a time it seems.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that I feel that G-d wants me to live a certain way, truly a sustainable, clean way of life but I’ve been dropped into a civilization, person, and time, that makes this nearly impossible. Baby steps and token “green” living is not enough. AAAaaarggggghhhhhhhhh

    Maybe it’s time for a cup of organic, fair-trade tea huh?

  18. Sharonon 26 Oct 2009 at 6:20 am

    Re: What religion is for – I guess I would distinguish here between what human beings are for, and what religion, in a formal sense – ie, “you should do this and not this in worship of G-d” is for. The narrative of Genesis seems to suggest that *religion* (as opposed to relationships with G-d) emerged gradually, as G-d picked a group of people to tutor and to increasingly control their actions. But even his first relationship with humans begins with limits – “don’t eat that fruit.” I would suggest, at least that limiting our role in the world is a central project, but that’s my opinion.

    Re:Whether this is possible – I think it is, and will write more specifically about how to do this – I think it is really important to remember that this doesn’t mean “use no energy” – for example about 12% of our existing electrical infrastructure could be adapted to a no carbon plan – it is hydro, or wind, or old nuclear. And certainly it would be possible to do a substantial retrofit over 10 years. Of course, since we won’t do this most likely, soon it will be impossible. But I do think it is important here to distinguish between the merely immensely difficult and the impossible.

    Meanwhile, if you’d like to see a fairly basic but viable plan for a 1-tonne carbon lifestyle, here’s Kiashu’s http://greenwithagun.blogspot.com/2008/02/one-tonne-carbon-lifestyle.html. Or those of you who have done the riot know taht many of us have come down to two or three quite rapidly – and without widespread national support. What could we do *with* that support?

    Misi, I understand what you mean completely, and you are right. It isn’t that I suspect we’re likely to *do* most of this stuff, and yes, we’d need massive support. But I also don’t think that it is impossible – which is what’s so bloody frustrating. We still have a decent shot at a much better future than the one we’re facing, and it sucks to watch the chance dwindle away. But yes, you can’t do it entirely alone – no one can.

    Sharon

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