Archive for the 'parshat noah' Category

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