Parashat Noach: how to avert the severity of the climate change decree

What are we to understand about the biblical story of Noah? How are we to relate to a God who allows such terrible destruction? How are we to relate to Nature, and the world in which we live?

Coming so soon after the story of the Creation of the world – there are just ten generations between Adam and Noah – the story bears witness to the much more complex relationship between human beings and the earth than we sometimes read from the earliest chapters in the Book of Genesis.

As we read in the first chapter, the earth and all its accoutrements – plants fish, birds and beasts – are created before human beings, and God sees them as being good. They are not created for the human being but exist in their own right. While the vegetation is available as food for the human, the animals are not so designated.  As Maimonides commented “The right view, in my opinion is that it should not be believed that all creation exists for the sake of the existence of humanity. On the contrary, all the other beings too have been intended for their own sakes, and not for the sake of something else.” (Moreh Nevuchim 3:13).  The Tosefta (late 2nd century text) asks “Why were human beings created last in the order of creation?” and answers itself “So that they should not grow proud, and we can say to them ‘even the gnat can claim it came before you in Creation’” (Tosefta on Sanhedrin 8:3)

We are created within and alongside nature. Nature, in this biblical viewpoint, is not created as a tool for us to treat as we choose, but exists both symbiotically with us and independently of us.

When God blesses humanity with the benediction to be fruitful and multiply, to populate the world and to steward it, this is not something that changes the power in the relationship, but instead formalises  the responsibility we have to sustain both ourselves and our world.  The natural world is not given to us unconditionally, but exists in relationship with us. It is not subservient to us, but is the place where we may thrive together, or may fail together.

Many readers of Bible are tempted to read the first chapters of Genesis and find a divinely created supremacy of humanity. After all, we are the only ones created in the divine image, whatever that may mean. While all the vegetation and animals are created to be able to sustain themselves and produce offspring, only humans are told to multiply and to range over the expanse of the earth.

So one might want to read into the text the sovereign authority of the human being in the natural world, but the bible would like to warn us that this is a misreading of great proportion. While the earlier story has words which are potentially problematic, particularly in how they are understood (“subdue the earth/ have dominion over”) (Genesis 1:28), the story of the Garden of Eden clarifies the relationship – the human is placed into the garden to serve it and to guard it”. And while we read in the Midrash that “God showed Adam all of the beauty of the Garden of Eden, and God said, “See my works, how lovely they are, how fine they are. All I have created, I created for you” – we must note that the Midrash continues with the warning “Take care not to destroy My world, for if you ruin it, there is no one to come after you to put it right” (Kohelet Rabbah 7:13).

Once the first human beings are expelled from the Garden of Eden, nature will become even less benign a partner, and more of a problem as we scratch our living from the earth through the sweat of our brow; the relationship of serving the land changed to one of working it.

But even more clear a warning to us not to read ourselves as somehow permitted to use the natural world as we see fit and for our own purposes, without thought of the effects of our actions, is the story of the great flood in the time of Noah.

The bible makes a clear connection between the behaviour of the people at that time – corrupt and violent – and the bringing of the flood.  As we will find later, in times of famine for example, or the plagues visited upon Egypt, Nature is a tool in the hands of God, used as a necessary corrective when humanity chooses arrogance and enormous self-centredness over the obligation to serve and to guard….  As we find in Midrash Bereishit Rabbah 8:12 (c200CE) commenting on verse 28 of the first chapter of Genesis:

God said, “I will make humankind in My image, after My likeness. They shall rule [ve-yir·du]…the whole earth”.… God blessed them and God said to them, “Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it;    and rule [u-re·du]…all living things…”  Rabbi Hanina said: “If humankind merits it, God says u-re·du [rule!]; while if humankind does not merit it, God says yé·ra·du [let them (the animals) rule].” (or Let them [human beings] descend [from their position of mastery]

 

The flood is a cataclysmic event. The bible records: “Fifteen cubits upward did the waters prevail; and the mountains were covered. And all flesh perished that moved upon the earth, both fowl, and cattle, and beast, and every swarming thing that swarmed upon the earth, and every human being; all in whose nostrils was the breath of the spirit of life, whatsoever was in the dry land, died.  And God blotted out every living substance which was upon the face of the ground, both human, and cattle, and creeping thing, and fowl of the heaven; and they were blotted out from the earth; and Noah only was left, and they that were with him in the ark. And the waters prevailed upon the earth a hundred and fifty days. ” (Genesis 7:20ff)

The destruction is incalculable, bringing death to every living thing outside of the sanctuary of the Ark. Plants and animals and birds – all gone in the space of a few months, along with the majority of human beings.  Bible sees this as a consequence of the will of God, who having seen the corruption and wickedness endemic in the world, regrets ever having made it and chooses to wipe most of it out and begin again.  The story is a retelling of much older flood stories, where there had been no moral conclusion drawn, simply the random destruction of the earth and her inhabitants by water, at the whim of indiscriminate and uncaring powers.

It is clear from biblical texts that Nature is, by its very existence, to be respected and held in some careful awe.  Again and again we are reminded that God is the creator of not just us, but of the rest of the world; Again and again we are reminded that our time here is short and we have but a fragile hold on life.  As Kohelet writes “one generation goes and another comes, but the earth abides forever” (1:4)

The mystical tradition teaches that the universe is the garment of God (Zohar 3:273a), a position also taught by the Hasidic tradition: “All that we see, the heaven, the earth and all that fills it – all these are the external garments of God” (Shneur Zalman of Liady)

There is a persistent thread within all streams of Judaism to remind us that reading the beginning of Genesis must be done most carefully – that should we derive the idea that humanity is somehow so exceptional that we are beyond the rules of nature, and beyond the obligations and morality expected of us by God, then we will indeed pay the price for that arrogance, and the price will be extracted by natural environmental events. As the unetaneh tokef prayer recited so recently in the Yamim Noraim reminds us, we will surely die, and the list of ways of us dying is instructive:

“On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed – how many shall pass away and how many shall be born, who shall live and who shall die, who in good time, and who by an untimely death, who by water and who by fire, who by sword and who by wild beast, who by famine and who by thirst, who by earthquake and who by plague…….  But repentance, prayer and righteousness avert the severity of the decree.”

Repentance, prayer and righteousness may avert the severity of the decree. One might put it into more modern terms – we abuse the bounty of the natural world, are careless of its resources, wilfully blind to the effect of our actions but the actions of  Reduce, Reuse, Recycle – this may avert the severity of the climate change already with us.

There is more – to Repair, to allow animals and land to rest; Regenerate;  Give animals freedom to range and to live a good and healthy life… Plant trees and grassland rather than paving over our environment, allow grasses to flower and insects to roam and feed, avoid pesticides and ensure our garden birds can eat safely….. these are the ways we can begin to avert the severity of the changes in our environment.

God saves Noah but repents the destruction after the event. The terror and trauma of the survivors is clear in the stories that follow, the rainbow a necessary but insufficient marker of security – the world may never again be totally destroyed by flood – but there are other ways we can destroy our world. The postdiluvian world is more complex, more violent and more painful than before. It is another kind of expulsion from Eden. Now every other animal – all living beings – will fear human beings (Genesis 9:2)– after all, it was human behaviour that had caused the destruction. Humanity is now permitted to eat anything that moves that has life – not just the vegetarian diet of before. Interestingly this permission is given only AFTER Noah has built an altar and sacrificed some of the animals on it in order for the smoke to reach God. Only the blood is forbidden to be eaten, says God. And anyone who takes the life of another – their life shall be required by God. There is a violent abrupt awareness of the flawed nature of humanity; the language is stark, unblinkingly focussed – it is ferocious.

After the flood, Noah leaves his ark, plants a vineyard and gets drunk. It is part of the story we don’t often tell. The trauma of the survivors is plain to see, the desperate fumbled attempts to rebuild the world which leads to the tragedy of the tower of Babel.

Humanity may indeed survive climate catastrophe, may go on to rebuild a new world. But would it not be better for us all to avert the evil in the decree, to help each other to rebuild this world to be a better example of what we would really want to create.

 

 

Rosh Hashanah Sermon  : unetaneh tokef prayer and the day for judgement.

 “B’rosh Hashanah yikateyvun, uv’yom tzom kippur yea’ha’teymun -On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed”

One of the most powerful themes in the liturgy for the Yamim Noraim is this one:- the idea that in heaven on this day there are opened three different books – one for the totally righteous, one for the totally wicked, and one – the largest one by far – for the people who have both good and bad deeds on our record, who must be weighed up and judged on a case by case basis.

The unetaneh tokef prayer – which came into use in Ashkenazi tradition in the Amidah since the 11th century (and is used in some Sephardi traditions just before the Mussaf service) but which is built on a much older poem from the Byzantine Period in Israel (circa 330–638) is a powerful liturgical poem for the Yamim Noraim, from which the quotation above is taken. It goes on to tell us what is also decided on this day: : How many shall leave this world and how many shall be born into it, who shall live and who shall die, who shall perish by fire and who by water, who by sword and who by beast, who by hunger and who by thirst, who by earthquake and who by plague, who shall rest and who shall wander, who shall be at peace and who shall be tormented, etc”  but goes on to remind us that” But Penitence, Prayer and Good Deeds can annul the Severity of the Decree.”

 The Book of Life:  Its earliest Jewish appearance is in the book of Exodus just months after the exodus from Egypt, when the Ten Commandments are given on Sinai and Moses returns to see people having despaired of his return and created a golden calf to worship. Moses returned to God, and said: ‘Oh, this people have sinned a great sin, and have made them a god of gold. Yet now, if You will forgive their sin–; and if not, blot me, I pray You, out of Your book which You have written.’  And God said to Moses: ‘whoever has sinned against Me, that one will I blot out of My book. Ex 32:32-35

We tend to see the Book of Life in terms of the unetaneh tokef prayer – a document that records everything, collecting the evidence determining who shall live and who shall die in the coming year, rewarding or punishing according to the life already lived. Yet the two ideas – that there is a Book written about our Life, and that reference to such a book enables the heavenly sentencing on Judgment Day (that is Rosh Hashanah), do not have to be so entwined.

The idea of a heavenly Book of Life seems to have originated in Babylon, with Babylonian legend speaking of the Tablets of Destiny, lists of sins and wrongdoings of people, who should be blotted out of existence. Scholars believe it probably referred to some kind of Eternal life, an end of time Judgment. Our Rosh Hashanah liturgy however sees the document differently, causing us to pray for a better and longer earthly life.

While the Mishnah tells us (Avot 2:1) “Consider three things that you may not come within the power of sin. Know what is above you—a seeing eye, and a hearing ear, and all your deeds are written in a book”, it also tells us “All Israel have a portion in the world to come”. Eternal life is, in effect, a given – the Book of Life is not so much about our eternity as about the actual record we each create as we live and go about our lives. The Sefer Hasidim pointedly adds that God is in no need of a book of records; saying “the Torah speaks the language of human beings”; that is, “this is a metaphorical statement to remind us that everything we do is a matter of record, and this record builds to describe and create testimony about each human life – its actions, its meaning, its impact on the world, its memory and memorial”.

The Book of our Life is not, in reality, simply a record of good and bad deeds, to be weighed up each Rosh Hashanah Judgment day when the book is opened.  It is the ultimate repository of who we are. We are, in effect, the sum of our actions and our memories. When our lives are stripped of memory they are stripped of meaning and of purpose. Purpose and meaning ultimately rely on a context and an awareness that is provided for us by our use and recording of memory.

In the last few weeks of Torah readings we have been reading about Moses’ rehearsing to and reminding the people of Israel about their history, their purpose, their connection with the Divine Being and its purpose, and the ethical and religious principles they agreed to when they entered the Covenant with God at Sinai, – an Eternal covenant, and one into which we bring our children. The whole of the book of Deuteronomy is in effect a Memory Book, a Book of Life, a record and proof text for who we are and what we are about. It is Moses’ last effort to implant within us a sense of our history and our purpose, a text to take with us into our future.

In just the same way as Torah gives meaning and purpose to the wider Jewish identity, our very personal existence depends on our own memory, mission and morality – remembering where we came from, what we are called on to do, and how we are called on to do it. And  this information is what creates each of our books of life, which we are invited to open and to read during Ellul, and then from Rosh Hashanah till Yom Kippur.

Our continued existence as thoughtful and purposeful human beings depends upon what is written in our own Book of Life. Who we really are will form who we will become. If we pay no attention to our own historical reality, to the memories of ourselves and of our people which we rehearse regularly in religious ritual both at home and in the synagogue, then slowly but surely we will lose touch with our root meaning – that which in religious terms would be called Covenant.

If we no longer tell the stories of our past, and find meaning within them that can speak to the modern world, then we will lose our particular purpose, and our lives will indeed become simple accountancy columns – so much fun versus so much pain, so many good deeds versus so many mean ones.  If we distance ourselves from the moral teaching of our tradition, and create a morality based instead on convenience or on what feels right in some unsubstantiated way, then we are in danger of losing our way, of making decisions not using our inherited system of values but on what suits us or fits in with our limited world view.

Memory, Purpose  and Morality – these bring the awareness of where we are the and the connection to where we come from; they create the understanding that our life must be lived with a purpose that is connected to our peoplehood, our roots – however we want to define memory; and a set of overarching values that are not about our own gratification or benefit but about a world view that takes in more than our own selves or our narrow context. This is what Moses was trying to explain in his last speeches recorded so clearly in the book of Deuteronomy – distilling both the history and the learning of the earlier books of Torah.  It is what we must try to do now, as we open our personal Book of Life and read it in order to understand something deep and vital about how we are living our own lives. Not just to reflect on things that are pricking our conscience a little or on the irritations and anxieties of other’s behaviour towards us. But to consider our memory, our  purpose in the world and the morality that both feeds and drives us.

Purpose and meaning, that which gives shape and direction to our lives, does not come out of nowhere. It is shaped by the stories we tell of ourselves and our forebears, by the writings of our historians and our prophets; It is taught to us in our homes and a variety of schools; That which comes to us through our faith tradition is rehearsed in prayer; symbolically enacted in rituals; and recalled periodically in a variety of services and liturgies. Our memories are strengthened by their being recalled and recounted, freshened and sharpened by how we use them.

Without a structure and a system for remembering and teaching, for measuring ourselves against who and what we should be, we ultimately cut ourselves loose from purpose and meaning and have to find roots wherever we can. This is as true of a nation state as it is of a religious identity as it is of an individual person. Each of us must root ourselves in a sense of meaning and purpose if we are to live full lives, and our senses of meaning and purpose must themselves be rooted in something of value and credibility – our family hist­­­ory and its stories, our connection to religious tradition, to a system of values and morals, to our reasons for being – our own humanity.

So when we pray – B’sefer Hayyim nizakeir v’nikateiv lefanecha.Anachnu v’chol amm’cha beit yisrael, le’hayyim tovim v’shalom.

May we and all Your people the family of Israel be remembered and recorded in the Book of Life for a good life and for peace. We are asking not for a simple accounting exercise in order to creep into heaven, not a weighing up of good and bad in the hope that we have been rather better than not, but that our lives are recorded and our memory maintained and refreshed so that we are better able to observe and take hold of the purpose and meaning of our individual and group existence, that our behavior will align more closely to who we know we could become – articulating the values of human dignity and social justice, of enacting good in the world.

It is important that we ask both for ourselves and also for all the people Israel to be able to critically understand the purpose and meaning of existence. For we are not alone here, not individuals on a journey to personal enlightenment so much as a group who are bound – since Sinai – in Covenant with God. We are a people, responsible each for the other, created to support each other and the values we share in the world.

We are a people, responsible each for the other, seeing ourselves as partners in co-creating with God the world in which we live, responsible for the enactment of the divine message of shleima – wholeness and integrity, in our world.

Torah tells us the world is not finished and perfect, it is up to people to complete and to perfect it.

We work on ourselves. That may be more or less difficult, more or less possible, and ultimately it is between ourselves and God just how well we manage.

For most of us our personal Book of Life is readable, at least in solitude, with a modicum of privacy to protect our dignity. We remember our childhoods, at least enough to draw from them the lessons we need as adults. We mostly have at least a sketchy knowledge of our family history over the previous generations – the name of a town or shtetl, the name of an ancestor recalled in our own, the stories that emerge when the family get together for a lifecycle event or festival. We can reconstruct enough of our past to gain a sense of our purpose and, as the bible says, the apple does not fall far from the tree – our family history is often surprisingly circular, and we maintain the values and traditions of our past in some way.

But when we become a group, then it is harder to examine our actions, to take joint responsibility for things we either know nothing about or maybe feel angry about.    We all belong to many different groups and we have responsibility for them– to hold each to account, to remind each of their past and their purpose. In particular at this time we think about the group we belong to called “Jewish Peoplehood” and “Israel”, and remind each other that Israel’s very existence depends on its memory, on its mission, and its morality.

Our memories are held in a book – the Book of Life for the Jewish people is Torah and its descendant the Rabbinic tradition of responsa and innovation. If we forget the values that are given to us there then we forget who we are and what we are about, we will ultimately fall apart, unnourished, unrooted, unconnected.

So when we think about the Book of Life this year, consider it a Book that actively maintains us and our purpose, defines our identities and our values so that we can work in the world in a consistent and meaningful way. And think too about the greater Book, the one that records the behaviour of our whole people. And with both of these volumes open and read lets think about what we want to be written in the coming year, so that when we leave here today we can begin to take up our meaning and our purpose, rooted in our values and our morality, and review and record the memories we want to be acted upon and remembered.