This week’s Torah portion brings us the story of Noah and the Flood. As you may recall, at the end of last week’s portion, God became aware that humanity had become corrupt. This portion picks up that storyline, as God reveals to Noah that not just humanity, but the entire world, is about to be destroyed and that he and his family will be the sole survivors. Noah builds the ark, he and his family load up the animals (either one pair or seven pairs of each depending on the verse you read), and together they literally weather the storm.
The rabbis of old were troubled by one particular aspect of the story. “If Noah was so righteous,” they wondered, “how could he have remained quiet knowing that only he and his family would survive? Why didn’t he warn the rest of his community?”
Of course, those same rabbis answered their own question in the from of a Midrash. It states,
“Make thee an ark of cedarwood? (Gen. 6:14).
Rav Huna said in the name of Rav Yose: For one hundred and twenty years, the Holy One kept warning the generation of the flood in the hope that they would resolve to repent. When they did not repent, God said to Noah,
“Make thee an ark of cedarwood.”
Noah proceeded to plant cedars.
When asked, “Why these cedars?” he would reply, “The Holy One is about to bring a flood upon the world, and God told me to make an ark, that I and my family might escape.” They mocked and ridiculed him.
In the meantime, he watered the cedars, which kept growing.
When asked again, “What are you doing?” he gave them the same reply, and the generation of the flood continued to ridicule him.
Finally he cut the cedars down, and, as he sawed them into planks, he was again asked, “What are you doing?” He replied, “What I said I would do, even as he continued to warn the generation of the flood.
When they did not repent even then, the Holy One brought the flood upon them.
At last, when they realized that they were about to perish, they tried to overturn the ark. What did the Holy One do then? God surrounded the ark with lions.
The rabbis could not imagine that Noah would be so selfish as to save himself without offering so much as a warning to others. Instead, they imagined that the process of building the ark, something that occurs in a matter of just a few verses in the Torah, took years. During those years, they taught, the people inquired as to what Noah was doing. That prompted him to not only explain his actions but to warn the person asking and offer them a means to set things right. They were offered a way to avoid the coming catastrophe but they refused to listen.
Why, one is left to ask, were the people unable to heed Noah’s warning? Why did they, time and time again, turn a blind eye? How could they have been so myopic as to ignore all the warning signs and only begin to see clearly when it was too late?
It wasn’t as if they were seeing stronger and more frequent hurricanes each year the way we are are.
It wasn’t as if wildfires were more destructive than ever as they are now.
And it wasn’t as if they had watched the collapse of the planet’s biodiversity the way we have seen a decline of almost 70% since 1970.
If they had seen THOSE warning signs they CERTAINLY would have done something and changed their ways.
According to one Midrash, after creating Adam, God showed Adam all around the Garden of Eden and then said:
‘Behold my works, how pleasant and how beautiful they are. And I created it all for you! Be aware and don’t ruin or destroy my world, for if you ruin it, there is no one to come and fix it up after you.
(–Midrash: Ecclesiastes Rabbah, 7:20)
Along with women’s reproductive rights, stopping the epidemic of gun violence and addressing the rise of hate in our nation, climate disruption is on the ballot this election cycle… and there is no ark coming to save the day. But our voices—and our votes—matter.
Rabbi Daniel Cohen