Every year on Parsha Noach for the last few, I discuss the prophetic teaching in the Torah regarding global ecological catastrophe. While in the story of Noah, we are told that human immorality caused God to wipe the slate clean, and start over, most people don’t believe the story. They think it is all myth and legend. They cannot fathom the accuracy of the entire world being flooded, and a small remnant of earth surviving on a wooden life-raft, until the water subsided.
At best, say the biblical critics, the story reflects an ancient flood of the Mesopotamian region, between the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers. After all, this is the cradle of civilization, and there are floods in other ancient culture’s historical record (i.e.Gilgamesh). There are least a dozen other strong theories as to why so many cultures have flood stories from around the world, including North America.
Leaving the reality of the flood aside for a moment, the story of Noah and the Great Flood have been ingrained into the Jewish imagination and our culture for eons. As a people, we have lived until recently with a strong belief that our actions could alter the world in a catastrophic way. God didn’t like what was going on, and that was that. Humans were punished. Animals punished. The world was cleansed, like a mikvah, of the impurities, and God started over. God made a covenant with Noah that such a devastation would never occur again. Furthermore, we learn in the Torah that the rains and fertility of the Holy Land, depend on the righteousness of the people. That is to say, Jews have lived with a deep cultural belief that the world’s livability and sustainability were dependent on human actions.
Now back to Noah and his ark-building scheme. What is Noah’s response to widespread ecological devastation and destruction that was predicted for the world? To preserve not only his family, but also every variety of animal and plant species on Earth, lest they become extinct by the Flood. Noah cared about the bio-diversity of the future world, and knew that without bio-diversity, the Earth would not be capable of sustaining human life either. Yes, he was following orders to build the ark, and to preserve the species, but he chose to do it. Noah endured years of ridicule and harassment for his extreme-weekend-warrior ark building. Noah had no friends, and was certainly considered an eco-freak, a survivalist, a religious-doomsdayist, an extreme eccentric, or some combination thereof. He was unmoved.
Which brings us to today’s parsha, the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to Al Gore, and the concrete evidence that the world is undergoing massive environmental change caused by human activity. There are many systems on the planet that have been disrupted by human activity. Species extinction, pollution, deforestation, desertification, are just the tip of the iceberg. Humanity, while printing billions and billions of copies, have not hearkened to the words of the opening chapters of the best selling book in the world which commands humanity to steward and protect the natural world. Al Gore received the Nobel Peace today, along with a panel of scientists, for their efforts to alert the world to the threat of global warming. There is much criticism directed at Gore. He is not perfect. But was Noah perfect either? Is it necessary for a person to be perfect to make a lasting and important contribution to the world? No.
The nature of Noah’s righteousness has been discussed and debated across Jewish history. “These are the chronicles of Noah: Noah was a righteous man, faultless in his generation. Noah walked with God. (Gen. 6:9)” As Rashi wrote:
“in his generations.” Some of our Sages expound this to his praise: all the more so had he lived in a generation of righteous people, he would have been even more righteous. And there are those who expound it to his defamation: by the standard of his generation he was righteous, but had he lived in the generation of Abraham he would have been considered as nothing.”
While the Nobel committee itself has been criticized, never more so than when it awarded a Peace Prize to Arafat, they too do not need to be perfect, to get something right. More often than not, the Nobel Peace prize has been given to people that have truly made great contributions to the betterment of humanity. While Gore might not be a perfect, Gore deserves the Nobel Peace Prize for his work to make us stop and think about the devastation that human activity is having on the planet that God gave us as an Earthly home. From Kyoto in 1997 to An Inconvenient Truth, Gore has been highly effective at changing conventional wisdom about global climate change, and educating millions of people about the devastating effects that Global Warming is and will have on our planet.
Noah didn’t do much to stop people from sinning when God told him that the gig was up and that humanity was to be drowned. And yet, he was called a tzaddik. Why? Because in a time when so many people would rather ignore what they are doing to the planet, Noah did something to preserve life. He took action. He built a bio-diversity life-raft which would sustain the world after the waters of the flood subsided. He listened to God and withstood the humiliation.
Today, humanity as a whole is still ignoring the results of their actions and refuse to take the necessary measures to protect life on Earth, much as it was in Noah’s time. However, this time around we have scientific committees and researchers, environmental groups, even politicians and others spanning the globe trying to improve and harmonize our way of life, our means of production, and human activity with the eco-systems that sustain life on the planet.
Al Gore continues to endure heavy ridicule and criticism. Still, Gore perseveres with his quest to educate the world about Global Climate Change. He pushes governments to adopt strict measures to help curb emissions and other detrimental practices that are causing the current rise in global tempretures. He has done more than any single person to raise the red flag of danger. With the Arctic icecap melting, glaciers fading away, permafrost shrinking and disappearing, widespread species extinction, whole regional and micro-climates changing in front of our eyes, we are not unlike the generation during Noah’s days. We see first hand the results of our actions, yet we continue. Noah didn’t think he could change the way people live and think.
Al Gore thinks he can.
A half an hour talk from 2006 at the serious issues raised by the story of Noah and the Ark.
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