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Parashat Noah 5780

November 1, 2019

Deluge, Ancient and Modern
A D’var Torah for Parashat Noah
By Rabbi Len Levin

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth, and all their host. God saw everything that God made, that it was good. All the beings and creatures followed the innate laws of their being, as implanted in them by their creator. Everything was perfectly orderly and predictable.

Then God created human beings and granted them free will. All hell broke loose, and all bets were off.

Corruption spread from humans to all God’s creation. The world was reverting to chaos faster than God could catch the divine breath that was hovering over the waters. God resolved to wipe out the entirety of earthly creation, except for a few specimens from each species that God’s chosen human representative Noah would salvage in order to start over.

After the deluge, God considered what changes to institute to give things a better chance the next time around. God decided to institute a dual covenant, establishing eternal laws in the celestial and terrestrial realms. These laws would reinforce each other and make for a stable future. In the terrestrial realm, God instituted the Noahide laws, enjoining humankind against murder, theft, unchastity, idolatry, blasphemy, and cruelty to animals, and commanding them to establish courts of justice. In the celestial realm, God placed the rainbow as a sign after every storm, to indicate that seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night should never cease.

These laws were tested within a year of the new regime. Noah, the designated righteous person for his generation, planted a vineyard, drank of the wine it yielded, and got drunk, losing all self-control. God stood back and let Noah and his family figure it out. The grapes were doing what grapes do. Humans may not know on the first time around, when they mess with natural substances, what effects they will produce. But God gave humans reason, to learn from trial and error, and to use the volatile substances of nature with moderation. An occasional error here and there was no threat to the natural order, and people would recover from their mistakes.

And so events proceeded for centuries and millennia. Good kings alternated with bad, and good commonwealths with evil empires. God sat back and let people work out their destinies, confident in the stability of the natural processes to sustain them.

But this equilibrium was strained when human technological capabilities increased, when humans cut down whole forests for farmland and burned coal to sustain their machines of production, changing the layout of the land and adding so much pollution to the atmosphere that it formed a partition, trapping the sun’s heat and warming the earth and the seas. Then the equilibrium was disturbed. Glaciers and icecaps started to melt, causing the sea to rise and threatening to submerge low lying islands and coastlands. The sea became warmer and more acidic, causing coral reefs to languish. Fishes, birds, and animals were driven from their customary habitats. Hurricanes and firestorms raged with unwonted intensity.

God stood back and observed, with growing concern. “I will not intervene as I did in biblical times. I will not intervene and upset the course of nature as I did then. But My human creatures are upsetting the natural course by their own actions. At first, they had the excuse that they knew not what they did. Like the properties of the grape, the properties of advanced technology must be learned through trial and error. But now they have sufficient knowledge of the good and evil that technology produces. I call on the divine image in my creatures, that they may diagnose the disease and prescribe the remedy while there is still time.”

How will this story end? Will we hear God’s call, and use our God-given reason to repair the damage and restore the equilibrium of the natural cycles? May it be so! Then the earth will be filled with knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the seas.
Rabbi Len Levin teaches Jewish philosophy and pluralism at AJR.