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Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director, Lower Merion Conservancy. 

Living Judaism

Parshat Noah
A Present: The Earth's Future.

— Mike Weilbacher

"And all the flesh that stirred on earth perished-- birds, cattle, beasts, and all the things that swarmed upon the earth, and all mankind. All in whose nostrils was the merest breath of life, all that was on the dry land, died. All existence on earth was blotted out-- man, cattle, creeping things, and birds of the sky; they were blotted out from the earth. Only Noah was left, and those with him in the ark." (Genesis 7:23)

Imagine yourself sitting on an airplane, on the runway, staring out the window, and you notice a maintenance worker pulling rivets out of the wing. Plucking them one after another. How many bolts do you need to see being yanked from the wing before you wonder what is going on-- and when the plane begins to taxi and the worker is still plucking rivets, do you think you will sit there quietly? 

Hold onto this image for a moment.
Noah's ark night light. One of many tchotchkes available on eBay
The week's parsha (Tora selection) of Noah is well known as the one we use to decorate children's bedrooms, and a quick search of eBay reveals a universe of Noah tchotchkes, everything from night lights to cookie jars. Humans are storytellers at their core, and the narrative of Noah, the ark, and animals-- the recreation of creation-- speaks to us at such a deep level that even the most secular humanist can tell the entire story and miss none of the highlights.

But immediately book-ending Noah are two stories necessary for understanding the ark: three fabulous images in only two parshiot, an embarrassment of literary riches. In the previous week's reading of B'resheet - Genesis - was Eden, the paradise, a garden overflowing with the stunning diversity of life freshly made by the hand of G-d. Humankind views Eden through green-tinted glasses, Eden becoming our word for a world perfectly in balance, where Homo sapiens is mostly a visitor, where as soon as we act human, we get kicked out. 

Immediately following Noah is the Tower of Babel, an effort by humanity to build a spire to the sky. Babel is the antithesis of Eden, the anti-Eden, an anthropocentric world where the rest of creation is irrelevant, where all that matters is whose tower is longer. There is no room for G-d in Babel, either, for we are G-d. 

Genesis revels in polar opposites: light and dark, day and night, man and woman, Cain and Abel. Here are two more: Eden and Babel as the two polarities of the human story. On this end of the spectrum, an Eden handmade by G-d; on the other, godless Babel. And the human enterprise ever since has been an effort to strike a balance between these opposing polarities. Each of us, even through the simple act of purchasing a house, decides where in this polarity he or she wants to reside; in fact, every day we make choices that change where we align ourselves on the spectrum.

And floating between Eden and Babel is Noah and his family on an ark containing all of life. 

I have been working on environmental issues since the first Earth Day in 1970. I was bitten by the environmental bug then, and it happily never let go. As we cycle through the Torah, I always look forward to Noah, reading and re-reading the text for some glimpse as to why a creation that was so good had to be obliterated only 10 generations later. Noah was born only a handful of years after Adam died, 930 years after Creation, according to folk tradition. Creation didn't even make it through the first millennium, and in just Adam's lifetime alone, G-d was ready to hit the reset button. The same ruach - spirit - that in Genesis 1:2 sweeps over the water just before creation returns in Genesis 8:1 to flood the world.

I struggle with this. I can understand humanity's fall from grace, but I wrestle with how our depravity could have co-opted all of creation. I don't buy it yet.

In Hebrew, the ark is a "teyva," almost a homonym of the word for nature, teva. I love this image: all of teva drifting inside a teyva. The word teyva, however, is used only once again in Torah-- the basket that carried Moses. Neither teyva can be steered by those inside; the craft is at the whim of fate, or better, in the hands of G-d. In English translations of the Bible, I'm struck by the use of the word "ark" as the translation of Aron, the ark of the covenant, for we don't use the word "ark" in many other places in English. Both arks were created by the voice of G-d handing detailed instructions to faithful believers-- in Noah's case, he built his ark, cubit by cubit for 120 years to arouse the curiosity of his neighbors. It seemed not to work. And both arks carry unique, sacred, precious cargo. In one is the Torah, the tree of life, and in the other, life itself. Two teyvas, (teyvot Heb.) two arks, three vessels, all designed for the preservation of life. 

All of teva inside a teyva. Whenever a picture book illustrates this story-- and there have been a deluge of these-- the artist always draws the predictable pairs lined up to board-- giraffe, ostrich, zebra, cheetah, elephant. These illustrations never present the full, extraordinary richness of life on earth: 10,000 species of birds, 1 million species of insects including 300,000 beetle species, 12,000 worms and leeches, 240,000 flowering plants, 100,000 fungi, 5,000 mammals, 6,300 reptiles, and on and on not even counting the diversity of the ocean's life unaffected by the deluge. 

But just how many species did line up to board that ark? What is the biological diversity of the ark of Earth? While we have mapped the human genome, found planets in distant solar systems, and split the atom, we still do not know within a factor of 20 how many plants and animals share our world. While old science textbooks say perhaps 5 million pairs of creatures boarded the ark; recent evidence indicates that the earth might be richer in life than we ever imagined, and some biologists think the earth might hold 100 million species of living things. G-d is a gifted creator. 

More sobering is the flip side of this coin, the story of the sinking ark. Left alone, species will vanish at the rate of about 1 every four years, and the tree of life continues branching because the creation of new species outpaces the loss of maladapted ones. But in our effort to cover the world with Towers of Babel, the extinction rate has soared: one species per year in the 19th century; 1,000 per year in 1975; today, 40,000 species per year, a fierce number that translates into 100 species per day, 8 or 10 in the short time we spend in service today, plucked from the ark by a flood of causes: poaching, the pet trade, pollution, overfishing, deforestation, desertification, dam building, wetland draining, rainforest burning. 

We're not losing whales, wolves, condors, pandas, gorillas. Yet. What we're losing are the small nameless creatures that hold the world together: earthworms, coral reef fish, parasitic wasps, rainforest orchids, beetles, frogs. One hundred pairs of beings that survived the flood because of Noah's faith are lost daily because of our inability to control our appetite, because of our worship of Babel.

"Never again will I doom the earth because of humankind," G-d says to himself after the flood, moved by Noah's sacrificial offerings, "nor will I ever again destroy every living being, as I have done." Later, the rainbow establishes a covenant between G-d and humanity, and between G-d and creation. "Never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there by a flood to destroy the earth." Noticeably lacking is a covenant between humankind and creation.

"Nishmat kol chai," we sing only moments before we read the Torah during the Shabbat service, "t'varaych et shimcha, Adonai Elohaynu, v'ruach"-- there's that breath again-- "kol basar t'fa-ayr utromaym zichr'cho malkaynu tamid." "The soul of every living being shall bless your Name; the spirit of all flesh shall always glorify and exalt your remembrance." Does G-d worry that every hour there are fewer souls, fewer living beings, to bless his name? Do we? Should we? Mainstream American culture certainly isn't paying attention. Babel swells as Eden recedes in our rearview mirror. 

We can change this. The Ecology of Eden by Evan Eisenberg, a landmark book that marries Genesis and environmentalism, reminds us of 16th century Tsefat kabbalist Isaac Luria, who taught that, in order to create the world, G-d withdrew inward, took a step back. Since G-d was everywhere, G-d contracted to leave a space where other things could exist. This contraction was called tsimtsum. "The time has come," writes Eisenberg, "for a human tsimtsum. The present lord of creation, humankind, must take a step back and give the rest of nature room to breathe. We must tighten our belts so that the rest of creation can go on."

There are so many easy ways to contract. Recycling saves huge amounts of water and energy. We must greatly boost energy efficiencies. We must strengthen cities like Philadelphia that house more people in a smaller footprint. We must cease the relentless juggernaut of sprawl. We must stop logging old growth forests in this country. We must feed, heat, clothe and house the world in just ways that don't desecrate creation. Each of us must commit oneself to decreasing our impact on the resources that sustain us.

And we must build arks of all shapes, sizes and scales. Your backyard can be an ark for migrating songbirds, butterflies and hummingbirds simply by the plantings you place in your yard. Beth Am's new landscaping can be an ark for local wildlife. The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge should remain an ark for caribou and polar bears. On Tuesday, Montgomery County voters have the opportunity to approve a $150 million bond issue for open space preservation-- vote yes, and you'll help build several dozen arks across the county. We need arks of open space and habitat.

Which brings us back to that airplane. Every species of plant and animal plays some role in the global ecosystem. Milkweed is the host plant for Monarch butterflies; skunks are the favorite food of great horned owls; barnacles inhabit the bodies of large whales; honeybees are the major pollinator for most fruit we eat. Each species is a rivet that holds the global ecosystem together. The good news is there are more rivets than we ever imagined before, perhaps 10 or 100 million rivets holding the global airplane together. 

But we are popping them at unprecedented rates-- and at our peril. And if global warming does proceed at the rate some warn, extinctions will increase, the airplane will become even less sturdy.

For me, the single most important challenge of the human endeavor in the decades ahead will be the preservation of life itself. Someday soon, the loss of a large charismatic species-- the mountain gorilla, say, or the giant panda-- will momentarily distract us from our infatuation with Babel, and we will fiercely turn our attention to the work of saving creation. We are counter-punches, and need an Exxon Valdez to stir us to action. My fear is it may then be too late. 

We need people to put rivets back into the airplane's wings. We desperately need more Noahs. Noah was a tzaddik, a shomer adamah, a guardian of creation. We need people to hear the call of G-d to rebuild and restore creation through the building of arks. 

Two polarities inform the human condition: Eden and Babel. The ark is floating away from Eden, sinking as it floats. While Noah's ark was in the hands of G-d, the ark of the earth relies on us, and we need a nation of Noahs to not only plug the leaks, but change the direction of the ship. Noah must cease being a trivial tale that decorates baby bedrooms and become the central metaphor of a new story that informs the work of humanity in the century ahead.

"And all the flesh that stirred on earth perished-- birds, cattle, beasts, and all the things that swarmed upon the earth, and all mankind. All in whose nostrils was the merest breath of life, all that was on the dry land, died." (Genesis 7:23)

G-d vowed to never let that happen again. This time, the choice is ours alone. 

Michael Weilbacher is the executive director of the Lower Merion Conservancy. He is a member of Beth Am Israel, a devotee of the environment pledged to safeguarding its future.

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