By Rabbi Nate DeGroot
In Parashat Noach, God promised to never destroy the earth again (Gen 8.21). But that says nothing of our precarious power as humans to jeopardize our own future1.
What could Noah have been thinking, we wonder2, as he built his ark, watching the people go by, knowing full-well God’s intent to wipe out land and flesh alike, and yet never reaching out to his neighbors or peers. No warning of what God has told him. No encouraging them to build their own arks. Or work together. No impetus to petition God.
נֹ֗חַ אִ֥ישׁ צַדִּ֛יק תָּמִ֥ים הָיָ֖ה בְּדֹֽרֹתָ֑יו
Noah was a righteous person, blameless in his generation.
A righteous person in his generation? Why does the text feel the need to qualify Noah’s righteousness? Couldn’t it have just identified Noah as righteous, and left it at that? Why “in his generation”?
According to the rabbis (Sanhedrin 108a, Bereishit Rabbah 30:9), Noah was righteous, but only so much so. And certainly in another generation, he would not have even made the Top 10. Noah was not righteous like Abraham, who argued with God to spare the residents of Sdom and Gmorrah. And he definitely wasn’t righteous like Shifra and Pua, who disobeyed orders from Pharaoh to help birth Moshe. As R’ Adina Allen says, “Noah follows orders, he does not advocate, agitate or even imagine another possibility.”
Today, it is incumbent upon us to imagine other possibilities.
Here in Michigan this past spring, we experienced a sort of a deluge of our own. With rain on 23 of May’s 30 days, farmers weren’t able to plant their fields until much later in the season. Some seeds rotted as they waited to be planted, and the ones that made it couldn’t get in the soil until drier conditions eventually prevailed. May to May, this was Michigan’s wettest year in history, and now we have historic shortages across the state of economic staple crops like corn and soybeans to show for it.
Our changing weather patterns not only harm our crops and fields, though. They can put us at risk, too. In warmer weather, mosquito breeding periods are longer, which means more mosquitos, and therefore more mosquito-borne viruses, like EEE. This spread of virus has caused serious harm and even death, as communities across the state take severe precautions in an effort to remain as safe and healthy as possible. These times are scary, and it’s no longer just in the theoretical, somewhere off in the distance. We all share this earth together and our futures are braided as one.
So when we consider our legacy and our reputation – when we consider how we will be viewed when people look back at our lives, like we do of Noah’s and Abraham’s and Shifra’s and Puah’s – how will we be judged? What stories and midrashim/commentaries will be written on us? Were we righteous? Or just righteous in our generation?
When we think ahead to the generations ahead of us, to the youth of this world who led and organized us in the largest global climate rally ever, how righteous will we look? How blameless will history render us in the eyes of Greta Thunberg, Xiye Bastida, and so many other young activists leading the way? How about to their children? Or our grandchildren?
Sustainability can be defined as development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. How well are we doing that? What kind of success are we setting our future generations up for?
As Hazon’s President & CEO, Nigel Savage recently wrote, “This is a moment in which we all need to raise our game. This is the year the pieces have to start to come together more deeply. This is the year in which we have to challenge the Jewish community to engage in serious “environmental teshuva.”
Thankfully, in the words of author Jonathan Safran Foer, in his new book, We Are the Weather: “We are the flood, and we are the ark.”
We got ourselves into this mess. God did not renege on God’s promise to us (we are reminded of that every time we see a rainbow in the sky). But rather, we abdicated our own responsibility to serve and steward this one home we have. And thus, it is entirely possible, and perhaps even a sacred and holy obligation, for us as Jewish practitioners and people of faith, to return to the kind of reverence and gratitude for the earth that it and we deserve. This is the year we make a deep and true and vulnerable teshuvah/return, as we commit to doing our part to shift actions, consciousness, and ultimately, history itself.
To get started, you may consider picking up a copy of We Are the Weather, and using Hazon’s corresponding Discussion Guide as a resource and companion. You may integrate, as Foer suggests, an intentional reduction of your industrial meat and animal product consumption on a day to day basis. You might begin to compost, or recycle, or finally remember to put those canvas tote bags in your car so you don’t need to use the plastic bags the store provides anymore. Or wash out your dirty water bottle so that you have no excuse not to carry it with you and use it throughout the day. You might urge your community to join Hazon’s Seal of Sustainability program, or deepen your engagement with the pre-existing Green Team at your Seal-certified site. You might sign up for the Hazon Detroit newsletter and/or like us on Facebook so you can show up at one of our programs and get more involved. You might choose to support our work financially. Whatever action steps you take this year, may you trust that they are needed, like you are needed. Because when future generations look back on 5780, they will care most that this was the year that we stopped being the flood, and started being and building the ark, together.
Rabbi Nate DeGroot is the Associate Director, Spiritual & Program Director at Hazon Detroit, the Jewish lab for sustainability. In this role, he is helping the metro Detroit Jewish community reconnect with their own earth-based Jewish roots, while reinvesting in their historic relationship with the Detroit community through its transformative, black-led food and environmental justice work.
1As R’ Sharon Brous pointed out in her Rosh HaShanah d’rash on climate.
2Thanks to R’ Adina Allen’s Kol Nidre d’rash for sparking this question.