Calamity or preservation: The choice is ours

Rabbi Randy Fleisher serves Central Reform Congregation.

By Rabbi Randy Fleisher

The story of Noah demands that we consider the possibility that our behavior can have a major impact on how the world treats us. Human beings were corrupt and violent, and as if the heart of the world was crying volumes of pain, it rained continuously for 40 days and 40 nights. The resulting flood covered even the highest mountain and destroyed almost every living being on Earth.

Later on, in the Book of Deuteronomy (in a passage later included in the prayer service as part of the Sh’ma), it is written that if we are guided by love, rain will fall in a healthy measure, and so we will be able to benefit from the gifts of the land. However, we are reminded that if we lose our moral center and become idolatrous and unlawful as in the days of Noah, then the rain will cease, a dramatically different consequence than what happened in Noah, but no less devastating.

In our day and age, we have become aware that cause and effect when it comes to the environment is no legend or empty threat. When we forsake ethics, mindfulness and foresight, we foul the air and water, and that comes back to haunt us in so many ways. 

As Rabbi Arthur Waskow wrote in a contemporary commentary on the Deuteronomy passage cited above, “If you chop the world up into parts and choose one or a few to worship — like gods of wealth, power and greed — then the rain won’t fall (or it will turn into acid), the rivers won’t run (or they will overflow because you have left no earth where the rain can soak in), and the heavens themselves will become your enemy (the ozone layer will cease shielding you; the carbon dioxide you pour into the air will scorch your planet), and you will perish from the good earth that the Breath of Life gives you.

Of course, it works the other way as well. If we can do damage by acting badly, we can improve our condition by doing it right. For all of the awful calamity of the story, Noah and his family are able to preserve the species, the glorious diversity of creation, by rescuing pairs of all the types of animals.

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Noah teaches us that we, too, can be rescuers. We cannot bring back the more than 5 billion species that have become extinct over the history of the world, but there is still time for the thousands of species, plants and animals, that are classified as endangered. 

All of the experts tell us that the best way to be like Noah in our day and age is to advocate for the preservation of natural, green and wild places where habitats are not destroyed by development. The delicate balance of nature, untold helpful and healing resources, and the richness of diversity itself are all saved when we act as our best selves for the common and long-term good. In effect, we are asked to ensure once again that our modern day Edens are not corrupted lest we are forced to seriously contemplate the cautionary tale of Noah, the portion that directly follows that idyllic beginning. I pray that we are up to the task.