Parashat Noach: We will not be silent: renewing the work of creation

Parashat Noach

Ten generations from the Creation of the first human beings the earth is corrupted, violent and vile.

וַתִּשָּׁחֵ֥ת הָאָ֖רֶץ לִפְנֵ֣י הָֽאֱלֹהִ֑ים וַתִּמָּלֵ֥א הָאָ֖רֶץ חָמָֽס׃

וַיַּ֧רְא אֱלֹהִ֛ים אֶת־הָאָ֖רֶץ וְהִנֵּ֣ה נִשְׁחָ֑תָה כִּֽי־הִשְׁחִ֧ית כׇּל־בָּשָׂ֛ר אֶת־דַּרְכּ֖וֹ עַל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃ 

וַיֹּ֨אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֜ים לְנֹ֗חַ קֵ֤ץ כׇּל־בָּשָׂר֙ בָּ֣א לְפָנַ֔י כִּֽי־מָלְאָ֥ה הָאָ֛רֶץ חָמָ֖ס מִפְּנֵיהֶ֑ם וְהִנְנִ֥י מַשְׁחִיתָ֖ם אֶת־הָאָֽרֶץ׃  {ס} 

The earth became corrupt before God; the earth was filled with lawlessness.  When God saw how corrupt the earth was, for all flesh had corrupted its ways on earth, God said to Noah, “I have decided to put an end to all flesh, for the earth is filled with lawlessness because of them: I am about to destroy them with the earth.

In three verses (Genesis 6:11-13) the narrative drives home the problem – human beings have damaged their environment irredeemably. Ha’aretz “the earth” is mentioned six times, each time with the connection that it is corrupted  – from the root שָׁחַת  meaning spoiled, destroyed, corrupted, decayed….

God doesn’t directly reference the corruption of the people – it is the earth which is expressing the consequences of human action and inaction, the earth which is acting out the full horror of what humanity has become. And it is on the earth that the full punishment will be felt, as the floods rise and the rain falls, the waters that surround the land which were divided above and below at the time of creation return to their place, and no land will be seen for 150 days and nights.

The intertwining of people and land is complete. What one does affects the other, yet we also know that the land is used again and again in bible to be the metric against which ethical behaviour is measured – and should we not follow God’s requirements we will be unceremoniously evicted from the land for which we have stewardship.

When God decides to end the corruption on the earth God speaks to Noach. God tells him – all flesh will be ended because it is the action of humanity that has brought this unspeakable destruction about, and God is about to end creation – both people and land must be ended.

And Noach says – well, interesting Noach says nothing. Indeed, we have no record in any of the narrative of Noach speaking. Not to God, not to his family, not to humankind. His silence is a cold core at the heart of the story.  Noach doesn’t react, doesn’t warn, doesn’t plead or beg or educate or protest….

Instead Noach builds the boat, collects the animals and their food as God has commanded him, floats in a sea of destruction as everything around him drowns. And when eventually the dry land appears and they are all able to disembark, still Noach doesn’t speak. He builds and altar and sacrifices to God. He plants a vineyard and makes wine and gets drunk, and only then does Noach speak – he speaks to curse his son who had shamed him while he slept off his drunkenness. (Oddly while it was his son Ham who had seen him in this state, Noach actually curses Canaan, the son of Ham.)

He breaks this long long silence for what? To curse so that one group of society will be oppressed by another. He has essentially learned nothing.

We read the story every year. Every year Torah is reminding us – it just took ten generations to completely spoil the creation of our world. We read it and yet we don’t notice it. Instead we focus on the rainbow, the promise from God not to destroy us again by flood. We have turned it into a children’s story decorated with colourful pictures of rainbows and cheerful animals on an artfully dilapidated boat.

We don’t pay attention to the silence of Noach, which mirrors our own silence. We too don’t protest or change our behaviours or warn or educate, we too just doggedly get on with our lives. We don’t pay attention to the way that nature rises up to right itself, the planet ridding itself of the dirt and destruction humanity has visited upon it. We don’t pay attention to the drunkenness of the man who cannot cope with what he has seen, nor the warnings which echo when he finally speaks – to curse the future.

Noach is the quintessential antihero. There is nothing much we can see in him to learn from or to emulate. Yet his story can teach us a great deal. First and foremost it teaches us that abusing the earth will bring devastating consequences to all who live on this planet, and to the planet itself. We learn that the earth is fragile and complex interdependent system, that it does not take long – ten generations – to corrupt and seriously damage it. We learn that the way to avert this is not only to change our behaviour but also to engage with each other and support each other in changing how we treat our world, silence and focus only on self-preservation will not bring a good outcome for anyone. We learn that the trauma of survival in such circumstances will mark the generations to come.

Bible tells us that God repents having made human beings on the earth. (Genesis 6:6) and so brings about the flood. It tells us that God wearily understands that “the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth” (Genesis 8:21) after Noach has made his sacrifice having survived and returned to dry land. Much is made of God’s covenant not to bring total destruction by flood ever again – the symbol for the promise being the rainbow that appears in the sky – but this is not an open promise to the world that we will not bring about our own destruction, merely a divine understanding that perfection will never be part of the human project.

A perfect world is beyond our grasp, but that should not stop us grasping for a world which is healthy and healing, nurtured and nurturing, diverse and complex and continuing to evolve.

In the yotzer prayer, one of the two blessings before the shema in the shacharit (morning) service, is the phrase    “uvtuvo me’chadesh bechol yom tamid ma’aseh bereishit”

In [God’s] goodness God renews the work of creation every day.

Creation is not static, it is a constantly emerging phenomenon. Our tradition makes us partners with God in nurturing the environment we live in. If  God is said to give us a new possibility each day to make our world a better place, then unlike Noach we must grasp the challenge and work hard to clean up our world, and so avoid the inevitable consequences of just looking after ourselves and keeping silent.

The paradox that is Pinchas plays out also in Jeremiah or: the murderous zealot in the cause of God while the despairing prophet gives us hope

There is no literary connection between the torah reading of Pinchas and the designated haftarah- the connection is instead calendrical as this week we begin the cycle of haftarot that will take us to Tisha b’Av, the blackest day of our calendar – and from there to Rosh Hashanah, the day of our judgment and the new year.

The three shabbatot before Tisha b’Av each have a traditional special haftarah reading that deals with the punishment that will befall the people who forget the God of the covenant. They are known as t’lat d’fur’anuta’ the “three of affliction” or of rebuke.  As we enter the first of the three, which signal not only the coming remembrance of the cataclysm that was Tisha b’Av, but also that we are on the run up now to Rosh Hashanah, we are provided with a good deal of food for thought as we must begin to measure ourselves and our lives, to try to comprehend the circumstances and environment  in which we are living.

The prophet Jeremiah lived at the end of the 7th century BCE. The Northern Kingdom had been destroyed and its inhabitants dispersed and lost. Judah, the Southern Kingdom, was in danger of the same fate. Jeremiah recognised this, and he offered both despair and hope in his prophecy. The religious and social conditions of the time were not good – idolatry was rife, and Josiah’s reforms were partial and weak, and did not survive long after Josiah’s death.  People were disconnected from the source of their religious traditions to the point where they even felt that the misfortunes of their country could have been caused by their not offering incense to other gods during the time of Josiah’s reforms. It is likely that there were even human sacrifices being offered at this time, justified as being a return to the true religion, a perversion of Judaism that appalled Jeremiah.

People were being stigmatized as being treacherous; they could not trust one another or build up strong relationships. Social injustice existed on all levels of society, and was barely even noted, so ordinary had it become to mistreat the poor in society. The world of Jeremiah is one we might recognise today, society breaking down, all kinds of fantasies floated as if they might be genuine, fake news and loss of trust in the leadership.

And what does Jeremiah talk about?  He talks about contract, about the covenant that the Jews have with God, about how there is a special obligation of loyalty upon Israel, and that even if Israel does not offer this loyalty, even if destruction follows, the curious truth is that the special relationship between God and the Jews, implied by the covenant, will not be broken. In all of the despair he shines an odd ray of hope.

It is a strange conception that we have an unbreakable contract of obligation to God.  It is almost impossible for us to imagine an agreement which, even if broken on both sides, remains binding. And yet it is at the heart of our history, it is our raison d’être and our aspiration. A Jew cannot repudiate the covenant for all time, even if we appear to despise it or ignore it. The obligation and the special relationship remain in place. I am  reminded of the perennial Jewish complaint to God- “We realise that we are the chosen people, but can’t you just go and choose someone else for a change”.  The answer, of course, is “even if I do, it doesn’t preclude Me from continuing to choose you!”

Reading Jeremiah is to know that we have an inescapable destiny.  The folkloric Yiddish form – that something is bashert, that something is meant to happen in the grand scheme of things – has probably helped the Jewish people to get through all manner of crises. Yet Jeremiah, for all his despair at what is going on around him, is paradoxically aware both of a kind of predestination and of the critical importance that free will will have in any outcome – he is prophesying about the impact of the individual’s choices.  He begins his prophecy in a way that shows he believed he had been called with by God:  “before I formed you in the womb, I knew you.  Before you were born, I set you apart.  I have appointed you a prophet to the nations”

Jeremiah develops the twin concepts of predestination and free will.  He rails at the people precisely because he knows that their chosen behaviour is dangerous and wrong, but that they can choose to behave a different way and different outcomes will occur. Predestination is not the same as determinism.  As Mishnah Pirkei Avot comments: All may be foreseen, but freedom of choice is given”  or as Mishnah Berachot frames it “everything is in the hands of heaven except the fear of heaven”: That is, whatever God may or may not perceive, it doesn’t have to mean that it will necessarily happen.  Unlike the covenant which binds us eternally however many times we may break it, we do have the power to escape what may seem to be our destiny – even a small change in behaviour can lead to a massive change in outcome.  It is in our hands to shape our lives.

Medieval philosophers understood this well. Maimonides comments that we enter the world with a variety of propensities and possibilities, but what use is made of them is our own doing.  Modern science has come to the same conclusion – we may be able to map out a whole variety of genes, but we still can’t guarantee our predictions about the bearers of those genes – even genetically identical twins can live completely different lives.

We read the 3 haftarot of rebuke and affliction every year in the 3 weeks before we commemorate the anniversary of the destruction of the 1st and 2nd Temples.  We can’t undo the history, but we can listen to the message – we know what is required of us, we know the likely outcome of our ignoring what God requires of us, we can change the future.

After Tisha b’Av our liturgical tradition decrees that there come 7 haftarot of consolation – more than double the words of warning and pain – a perfect number of weeks of grieving and moving on. From this Shabbat until Rosh Hashanah there are ten weeks of preparation, mirroring the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, when the work we do from this period will intensify in urgency and feeling.   The liturgical calendar is being carefully patterned and manipulated to encourage us on a religious journey towards new beginnings. The message is being hammered home – the covenant may be ignored or unfulfilled but it has not broken, we remain obliged to our relationship with God.  Our future is foreseen in all its possibilities but we remain in charge of what will actually be – we have the choice to behave well, and if we choose not to do so we are well aware of the consequences.  But even the consequences, dire as they may be, never rule out the possibility of change, of, to use a very old fashioned word – redemption.  From the reading of the first haftarah of affliction until Rosh Hashanah we have ten weeks – the clock is ticking and, as we read in Pirkei Avot, “the work is great and the Master of the House is waiting.”