Noah 5779: Facing the Rising Tide Together

If you like dramatic stories, then Parashat Noah is for you. Between the ark and the tower, the flood and the dispersion, there is high drama. A teacher of mine once argued, however, that the most important element of the portion is the least dramatic one: the genealogical tables. Noah dies at the end of chapter nine, at the ripe age of 950, after which the Torah tells us about the families established by his three sons and their wives. Chapter ten consists of a remarkable document known to scholars as the Table of Nations, a 32-verse origin story of the nations of humanity. After the brief narrative about the Tower of Babel, we are back to genealogy, with another 22 verses regarding the nations of Shem, concluding with the focus on Terah and his family.

This narrative technique is like one of those movies that starts with a shot of planet earth, and then zooms in to a specific continent, country, city and street where we suddenly find a person and hear their story. Why do we need these genealogical introductions to the great tales about the ancestors of Israel?

Seventy nations are listed—a typological number—but other than claimed descent from Shem (26), Ham (30) and Yafet (14), what connects them? Nahum Sarna offers the obvious but still surprising point that in listing the nations of humanity, the Torah makes absolutely no reference to race or any other physical characteristics (JPS Torah Commentary, Genesis, p.68). He adds, “Nor is language a guideline since Canaan, recognized by Isaiah 19:18 to have the same tongue as Israel, is affiliated with Egypt among the Hamites, while the Elamites, who spoke a decidedly non-Semitic language, are classified under Shem.”  Instead, the message seems to be one of common origin and “the essential unity of the international community, which truly constitutes a family of man.”

While the narrator adopts a neutral tone, there are early hints of priority for the descendants of Shem. The children of Japhet and Ham are introduced simply, “And the children of Japhet were…” but Shem gets an extra introduction (10:21), “Sons were also born to Shem, ancestor of all the descendants of Eber and older brother of Japeth.” Further, the genealogies of Japeth and Ham extend only three generations; for Shem we learn six generations.

More interestingly, the 70 nations of the world match the 70 members of Jacob’s family who will descend to Egypt. It is as if the Torah is subtly telling us that one family serves as a microcosm for an entire planet. However, the narrowing focus on the family of Shem, and then of Terah, then Abram and eventually Jacob is also indicative of a special mission for this people—to become a blessing to the world. Abram is selected with a specific purpose in mind—“through you will all families of earth be blessed”—and as Abraham, he is to be “a father of many nations.”

I would like to highlight an additional meaning to this focus on the family of humanity before the Torah narrows us down to one person, and one people. The universal message of Parashat Noah is unavoidable. Humanity shares a single origin, and it likewise shares a single destiny. True, there will be winners and losers in any given moment, but ultimately we are in the same big boat. Rising flood waters will cause harm to all people, and indeed to many other species as well.

This week the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a dire report, warning that we have a 12 year window to make dramatic changes before the damage becomes truly catastrophic. Anthropogenic climate change of 1 degree Celsius from pre-industrial levels has already been observed, but at current rates another half-degree of warming is likely, and a full degree is quite possible. Melting sea ice and thawing permafrost are creating a feedback loop that may accelerate the damaging change. In understated language, the report states, “Climate-related risks to health, livelihoods, food security, water supply, human security, and economic growth are projected to increase with global warming of 1.5°C and increase further with 2°C.” This report generated headlines of concern, but it took something more dramatic to get our attention.

As if to hammer home the panel’s point, nature unleashed Hurricane Michael, the most powerful storm yet to hit the Florida Panhandle. Video coverage of the devastation is stunning. Are the increasingly powerful storms made worse by global warming? While scientists are cautious about pinning specific events to specific causes, in general, the answer is yes, storms are made more powerful by warmer waters, wetter because of warmer air, and more damaging because of rising sea levels. As Henry Fountain writes in the NY Times:

Scientists are increasingly confident of the links between global warming and hurricanes.

In a warming world, they say, hurricanes will be stronger, for a simple reason: Warmer water provides more energy that feeds them.

Hurricanes and other extreme storms will also be wetter, for a simple reason: Warmer air holds more moisture.

And, storm surges from hurricanes will be worse, for a simple reason that has nothing to do with the storms themselves: Sea levels are rising.

The impact of climate change will be felt unevenly, with coastal cities and low-lying areas flooded, other areas burning with drought, and yet others experiencing algal tides and infectious diseases. Yet in the end, distinctions will be dissolved. Millions of people will flee from the most severely affected regions, and not even the tallest walls will keep them out. Our greatest threat may be civil unrest—the damage we do to each other. Humanity has collaborated in creating this problem, with Americans leading the way, and humanity will be affected together. The only real solutions will likewise need to be collaborative.

Many of us already believe these things and have made modest modifications in lifestyle to try and limit the damage. But do we really believe it is real? We try to be more energy efficient, to waste less, to recycle and compost. And yet it is hard to sustain such consciousness and conscientiousness for long. We vacillate between anxious concern and blithe obliviousness. In this we are much like Noah.

The Torah describes Noah as perfectly righteous, and yet he is patently inconsistent in his conduct. Although he responds to the divine command and builds his boat (for 120 years, according to a Midrash), he delays entering it, as he was commanded in 7:1. Verse 7:7 says that Noah “went into the ark because of the waters of the Flood” (JPS). The final phrase, מִפְּנֵי מֵי הַמַּבּוּל, seems unnecessary. Midrash Bereshit Rabba claims that if the water had not reached Noah’s ankles, he wouldn’t have gone inside. Rashi connects this Midrash to our verse and says, “Even Noah was of little faith—believing and not believing—he didn’t enter the ark until the waters pushed him in.” Believing and not believing—that is a reaction to which we can relate.

Hasidic writers struggle with Rashi’s indictment of Noah. How could he have been of little faith? Surely this righteous man believed in God’s prediction. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel of Apt (the 18C ancestor of our own Professor Heschel) says that yes, Noah believed in God’s power, but he was afraid of his own role in causing the apocalypse. Somehow, going into the ark would make the prediction come true, and so he hesitates. I don’t find this interpretation to be a convincing reading of the words as p’shat—but on the psychological level, it is quite deep. Noah engages in magical thinking, and this is the true limitation on his faith.

We too are in the state of believing and not believing. Climate change is real, but will it be as bad as the scientists say? Maybe the planet will cool itself down? Maybe scientists will figure out geoengineering and block some sun from heating us further? We don’t want to believe that this is real, and we especially don’t want to believe that we personally are part of the problem. But of course we are. And there is no ark to rescue us, no other planet to become our perfect home. Here we are, on this magnificent planet with all of its wonders, and it is our responsibility to do everything we can to make it a sustainable home for future generations.

On Shabbat we cease from labor, curtailing our creativity and consumption of energy (ideally), pause to appreciate the natural world. Doing so we gain a glimpse of the world to come—a future age not of apocalypse but of renewal. People come from one origin, and we share one destiny. Each small community can make a significant contribution. Let ours become an example for others to emulate—let’s become giants of faith, מגדולי האמנה, and a source of blessing to all families on earth. Shabbat shalom.

ישעיהו פרק יט פסוק יח

בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא יִהְיוּ חָמֵשׁ עָרִים בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם מְדַבְּרוֹת שְׂפַת כְּנַעַן וְנִשְׁבָּעוֹת לַיקֹוָק צְבָאוֹת עִיר הַהֶרֶס יֵאָמֵר לְאֶחָת:

בראשית פרק ז, ו-ז

(ו) וְנֹחַ בֶּן שֵׁשׁ מֵאוֹת שָׁנָה וְהַמַּבּוּל הָיָה מַיִם עַל הָאָרֶץ: (ז) וַיָּבֹא נֹחַ וּבָנָיו וְאִשְׁתּוֹ וּנְשֵׁי בָנָיו אִתּוֹ אֶל הַתֵּבָה מִפְּנֵי מֵי הַמַּבּוּל:

בראשית רבה (וילנא) פרשת נח פרשה לב סימן ו

ויבא נח ובניו ואשתו וגו’, א”ר יוחנן נח מחוסר אמנה היה, אלולי שהגיעו המים עד קרסוליו לא נכנס לתיבה.

רש”י בראשית פרשת נח פרק ז פסוק ז

מפני מי המבול – אף נח מקטני אמנה היה, מאמין ואינו מאמין שיבא המבול ולא נכנס לתיבה עד שדחקוהו המים:

אוהב ישראל בראשית פרשת נח ד”ה בשם הרב

ויבוא נח וגו’ מפני מי המבול [ז, ז]. ופירש רש”י ז”ל אף נח מקטני אמנה היה מאמין ואינו מאמין שיבוא המבול עד שדחקוהו המים עכ”ל. והלא פלא גדול לחשוד את נח הצדיק שהיה מקטני אמנה בהשי”ת ח”ו. ונראה לי דהנה תיבת אמונה יש לו שני פירושים. א’, כפשוטו האמנת הדבר שבודאי יהיה כך. עוד יש לומר אמונה מלשון ויהי אומן את הדסה (אסתר ב, ז) והוא לשון המשכה וגידול כי באמונה יש כח זה שעל ידי האמונה יומשך הדבר הזה ממקורו ויבוא. היינו על ידי שהוא מאמין בהש”י ובוטח בו באמונה שלימה על שום איזה דבר אז נמשך הדבר ההוא ובא בשלימות. והנה נח הצדיק בוודאי האמין בשלימות בכל אשר דיבר אליו השי”ת בכל לבבו ובכל נפשו בתמימות כדרכו הטוב מאז ומקדם. אך בדבר זה היה ירא להאמין באמונה שלימה בכל לבבו כי אולי יהיה הוא הגורם להבאת המבול היינו על ידי שלימות אמונתו יומשך בוודאי מזה הבאת המבול. ולא היה יודע איך ליתן עצות בנפשו מה לעשות. וזהו שפירש רש”י ז”ל מקטני אמנה היה מאמין ואינו מאמין. ר”ל באמת היה מאמין רק שירא להאמין בשלימות שהשי”ת יביא המבול כי אולי יהיה הוא הגורם לזה וכנ”ל. עד שדחקוהו המים כו’ והבן היטב. ודברי פי חכם חן. עד כאן בשם הרב ז”ל:

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