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A Timely Lesson From the Ancient Flood

by Rabbi James Prosnit

Rosh Hashana PM 5777

The story of Noah is myth, not history.  But the biblical authors and editors who shaped it and retold it may well have known of natural disasters which gave their tale its own authenticity.  Stories of storms and floods after all are common in ancient literature as over and over again we put into perspective nature’s fury, by telling stories of destruction and survival.  David Brooks the other day in his Times op ed mentioned that some 200 such flood stories exist in world literature.  In most of them humanity is destroyed and somehow a saving remnant strives to repopulate and rebuild the earth. 1 

As we think back on the year now ending, for many around the globe including millions on our very own shores myth became a reality and shattered lives wonder not only about rebuilding, but wonder about the science, the sociology and the theology of these epic storms.  We’re told by the cable news reporters that we’re witnessing “storms of biblical proportion.” And we know that like the flood waters in Noah’s time Harvey and Irma will long linger in our consciousness.

What separates Noah from many other ancient flood motifs, however, is the moralistic dimension of the story.  It is not just the force of nature that overwhelms humanity, it is a God who controls those forces and stirs them up because God does not like the way God’s creations are behaving. We’re told that the people in Noah’s day were corrupt, lawless scoundrels and the best way to rectify their ills was to wipe them out.  We have no doubt heard some employ such moralizing to storms both recent and in the past, but I hope we know better.  To do so is to end up on some very dangerous and objectionable theological grounds. 

We may of course ask where was God in these cataclysmic storms and quakes.   And if we believe that God is a power behind creation then we have no choice but to apply some Divine responsibility to the imperfections of nature.   Shifting tectonic plates and vast waves spreading across the ocean or tropical depressions mixing with heated oceans to cause category four or five hurricanes may call into question our ability to praise God’s ultimate power and perfectly patterned universe. 

For most of us, however, I trust these storms are neither a sign of God’s imperfection or a sign of God’s wrath.  Forces of nature are just that; forces of nature.  Those who suggest such storms are some form of Divine punishment give religion a bad name, but those who suggest human behavior has nothing to do with the intensity, impact and aftermath are missing the mark as well.  I have no intention of blaming the victims, goodness knows we mourn for those killed and commit ourselves to helping those affected recover, but we still must confront the fact that where and how we build our homes and settle our land has implications on the disasters we experience.  It is well past the time for us to acknowledge the tyrannosaurus rex in the room, namely our role in climate change and its impact  on what we witnessed in recent days. 

Yes, I know the sober warnings that are issued whenever an extreme weather disaster occurs: No individual storm can be definitively blamed on climate change. But there is science before us. The daily surface temperature of the Gulf of Mexico last winter never dropped below 73 degrees, and that has happened zero times since such statistics began to be collected.

“The heaviest rainfall events have become heavier and more frequent, and the amount of rain falling on the heaviest rain days has also increased,” as the National Climate Assessment, a federal report, found.  The mechanism driving these changes,” the report explained, is hotter air stemming from “human-caused warming.”  Heavier rain can then interact with higher sea levels to increase flooding. 2

While we resist calling this God’s wrath we should not switch the lens of scrutiny away from human action or inaction entirely; for the real lesson of Noah’s story is not in its moralistic tone of God destroying a corrupted world.  The real lesson comes at the end of the story; after the storm has abated and the dove flies off to dry land. A rainbow appears as a sign of a covenant and God tells Noah to repopulate and rebuild the earth.  The covenant, however, will rise and fall on humanity’s willingness to protect all of God’s creations.  The intensity of recent storms reminds us that we are doing a questionable job on that front.

Last Friday night I told a “wise” men of Chelm story as a prelude to these Days of Awe.  Well here’s another.  As you may remember Chelm was that town in the old country where the people, how do I say it politely, were not so smart; but where their foolishness pointed tellingly at societal realities well outside of the walls of Chelm.   

It seems that the road up to Chelm was quite dangerous. It was filled with curves and pot holes and steep cliffs. There were many accidents to the horse drawn carriages climbing or descending the mountainous road.  Numerous people had been injured and there was great concern for the people’s safety. 

So the town fathers got together and created a commission to look at the problem and make a recommendation.  After months of study a report was given that showed how the road could be made secure with bridges and barriers and efforts to widen the road in the most dangerous parts.  The elders, the wise men of Chelm reviewed the report and determined that fixing the road would be far too costly and expensive, but what they could do was build a hospital at the base of the mountain so that anyone injured on the road would be able to receive quick medical attention.

Too many of our leaders are taking their cue from the wise men of Chelm.

We seem to be spending far more time cleaning up from the crises both natural and man-made; the storms and the spills.  And yes from the responses we’ve witnessed in recent days, at least in this country, we seem better able to respond than in the past.  How heartwarming it was to see the many stories of neighbors jumping in to help neighbors, although as the power comes back on in some neighborhoods and the floods recede  we still note that the haves are doing a lot better than the have nots. 

When it comes to steps for collective action to seriously address what Thomas Friedman has called global weirding – monster hurricanes in some areas and intense heat and increased drought in others we’re not doing the hard work, we are standing idly by. 

Goodness knows there are so many things to talk about these days and I’ll tackle a few other things that I sense are on your mind tomorrow, but this is a good evening  for me at least to elude to the subject –because one of other names for Rosh Hashanah, is Yom Harat Olam –the Birthday of the world.

Today we celebrate the 5778th year since creation – at least according to the biblical story.  And I for one have no problem holding this thought in one side of my brain and the billions and billions of years since the big bang or the string theory or whatever physicists are now contemplating in the other. I am content to understand that at some point in time, human beings (maybe 5778 years ago) looked beyond their caves and became concerned about the planet.  They began telling stories of creation and the need to protect the precious environment to the best understanding they could at the time. 

Our sacred texts recognized an environmental ethic that continues to remind us that we are tillers and tenders of the planet and the Land is given to us as sacred seasons are given to us, by God. This concept of reverence for land and time, of roles and responsibilities within a natural, interconnected system that recognized a human need for work and for rest, and of a spiritual connection with the land.

So it’s a good time for us to be reminded of our voice when it comes to good environmental policy and it’s a good time for us to be reminded of our own behaviors at home and around our communities.  There is a clear Jewish value in in knowing that no action is insignificant if it is for the good. Good small works can create a consciousness and a community that collectively does a great amount of good. The Jewish way to social justice bids us to let our people and our society know that in a world created by God and inhabited by humanity made in God’s image, refraining from using a plastic bag is an act of the sanctification of God’s name.

But while those small actions may make us feel better – and together with other folks may have some small impact; we know that change will only come when we use our votes and our voices in influencing those in power to take on the bigger issues of carbon and cattle and urban sprawl, to name just a few. If the science is right, and I think most all of us here tonight agree that if is, then we as a nation have to make tough choices that have some real economic implications.  When push comes to shove, the debate is not about the science, it’s about the politics and the political divisions within our country.

It’s interesting that while Noah was considered in the biblical story to be a “righteous man” an “ish tzedek,” the most righteous man in his generation, he only takes steps to save his family, he shows no concern for others.  While sometimes we think of the story as a child’s tale with animals coming in twosies twosies, it actually is a tale of terror. We can imagine the scene as the gang plank is being rolled up, Noah’s neighbors pushing and fighting to get on the ark.  Why didn’t you warn us they might be screaming –save us too!

The Torah commentary Itturey Torah reminds us too that according to the text, Noah walked with God, he didn’t walk with people, with others.  He was not interested in humanity, in the environment in his fellow citizens.  His righteousness was directed inward to himself and his family.  He was what is known in Yiddish as a tzaddik in peltz – a righteous man in a fur coat.  He was commanded by God to build an ark – he built it board by board and nail by nail., for a hundred and twenty consecutive years, and it never crossed his mind that there might be a way to avert  God’s decree and to save the world from destruction.   Noah walked with God but did not become involved with the members of his generation, was not concerned about them and did nothing to guide them and to try and protect them from the calamity that was about to befall them. 

Jews are not to pray for God to work for us.  We pray for us to work for God. We don’t pray for God to modify the laws of physics and the science of meteorology. We pray to God to help us intensify our response and our compassion and our empathy.

During a storm or flood or a drought it is not a time for prayer. It’s time for both short and long term action.  It’s Rosh Hashanah — a beautiful fall evening a – a good time to be reminded that we are in this together and as in the voice of the ancient psalmist — the earth is the Lord’s — we are very temporary residents.


1 Brooks, David,

2 Quoted in Leonhardt, David;