What if Noah had been an exemplary spiritual leader and not just, as the Torah tells us, a righteous person by the standards of his own generation? Picture Noah as a true prophet of his time, a man who knows that God is about to destroy the world. Such a person would have done far more than simply build an ark for his own family. He would have labored tirelessly to warn the entire human family. He would have spoken from every rooftop, announcing that the earth would soon be destroyed if they did not immediately change their lives. He would have begged, cajoled and proclaimed, “There is still time, but do not tarry, for the end of the earth is at hand!”
Avraham Burg’s bold new Torah commentary inspires us to probe the Torah’s wisdom for our own time. Burg uses his own moral and spiritual imagination to uncover new layers of meaning in the ancient text. For him, the destruction described in this Torah text leads to reflections on the Nazi Holocaust For me, the Torah’s narrative of global annihilation has a closer analog in the reality of environmental destruction, and the very real threat to the earth born of human hubris, greed, denial and neglect. Our generation faces the real possibility of ecological disaster, caused by human misuse of the earth given to us.
It takes but a small leap of imagination to transpose Noah into the contemporary context. A contemporary Noah would write, blog, organize and use media to persuade the world to wake up to impending calamity. This Noah would be driven by the threat to the whole human family and would confront our collective denial of the real dangers our civilization faces.
We have many such voices of bold, transformative leadership on this issue. Remembering Rachel Carson, who launched the environmental movement, we now have Al Gore, Thomas Friedman, Rabbi Arthur Waskow and many others who continue to sound the environmental alarm. Yet these prophets have faced intense resistance, because we as a species resist change, but also because some find it in their own interests to deny the facts of climate change.
To take the Noah story seriously is to remember the covenant blessing that God offered to humanity after the destruction. As Rabbi Arthur Waskow has written, “In the rainbow covenant God promised not to destroy the Earth because of us, but God did not promise that we wouldn’t destroy the Earth… . We must realize that God’s covenant is not enough to save us… . We have reached a point where we can undo God’s rainbow covenant at the expense of our own lives and the lives of other creatures.” (www.theshalomcenter.org)
The parasha’s powerful imagery challenges us to hear the voices of the contemporary prophets who speak the truth about impending environmental catastrophe. It implores us to wake up from our ordinary concerns to heed their call, and to act before it is too late.
Rabbi Amy Eilberg, the first woman ordained as a Conservative rabbi by the Jewish Theological Seminary, conducts programs of interfaith dialogue at the Jay Phillips Center for Interfaith Learning in St. Paul, Minn.