The connections Rabbi Stern and Rabbi Grossman have drawn between the story of Noah and the modern environmental crisis are, sadly, very much to the point. One of the salient points of the Biblical story is that the crisis is brought about by sinful human action. In the words of the Torah, “Now the Earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. And God saw that the Earth was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted its ways upon the earth. And God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the Earth is filled with violence because of them; now I am going to destroy them along with the Earth.” (Genesis 6:11-13)
Interestingly, many ancient peoples have stories of vast floods that nearly destroy humankind, but the Torah is unique in attaching a moral lesson (for example, in the Babylonian epic of Atrahasis, the gods decide to destroy the world because people are so noisy that they are disturbing the gods’ rest!). The Torah articulates a clear moral view in which our actions have consequence: if we act for goodness we will receive blessing, and if we act selfishly and against God’s will, we will reap the consequences of our actions.
Rabbi Jeff Sultar, writing for the environmental coalition Green Menorah, attaches this lesson to the Mishnah in Ethics of the Fathers that states: “Everything is foreseen, and free will is given” (3:15). Usually this rabbinic aphorism is understood as a statement about predetermination that tries to balance the paradox of a God who knows all and of our apparent ability to freely choose. Instead, Rabbi Sultar reads the Mishnah as a description of human nature: We are aware of the consequences of spewing carbon dioxide into the air, of consuming fossil fuels at a rate that threatens to deplete our natural resources, of dumping the byproducts of industrial processes into our waters, and of deforestation and the concomitant reduction of biodiversity. We know these things and what they mean for our planet–things are foreseen–and it will be up to us to choose whether we work to protect the Earth, for free will is given.
Let’s hope that our awareness of what the future holds in store will spur us to exercise our free will for good. If not, we may need to start building a very, very big ark.