Only last week, in the beautiful poem with which the Hebrew Bible opens, we read of a God in love with the world. ‘God saw that it was good’ is the chorus line of creation.
Now, just one week’s reading later, God sees that the world is bad. Losing patience with humanity ‘whose every thought is evil’, God determines to destroy the earth. Only Noah is to survive, with the precious gene-pool of all living things sealed away in the floating bubble of the Ark.
Everyone knows the story. Except that we sing it from the point of view of the animals who ‘came in two by two’. What about those who didn’t? And the people? Were they all so awful that they really deserved to drown?
Afterwards, God is sorry. It’s history’s first ‘Never again!’ In soothing words, God ensures Noah that
All the days of the earth [the rhythm of] seed-time and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day-time and night-time shall never come to rest (Genesis 8:22)
It feels a little late. According to the Zohar, when Noah opens the portal of the Ark and looks out on the mud-flats of devastation where once there had been villages, fields and forests, he weeps. So Noah is sorry too.
What about us? Do we regret, or really care about, what we do to the earth?
The Torah tells us what was wrong before the flood: ‘All flesh had destroyed its way upon the earth’. But what does this broad indictment actually mean?
Rashi, the great 11th century commentator, explains: ‘even the cattle, wild animals and birds interbred,’ corrupting their species. Blame the animals, too.
Nachmanides (1194 – 1270) disagrees, maintaining that the plain meaning is that ‘all flesh’ refers only to humans. Our species did wrong, but all living beings had to pay the price.
This is disturbingly close to home. If we’re not disturbed, we’re probably missing the most important issue confronting our civilisation.
To return to the critical sentence: what might ‘destroyed its way’ mean to us? The Hebrew for ‘way’ derech, appears in another, much-loved verse about the Torah and wisdom as a whole:
Its ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace.
Are our ways, towards each other, nature and life itself, ways of pleasantness and peace? If not, how can we make them so, urgently?
Every day I receive letters about cruelty, the callous neglect of human life and contempt for nature. Some provide distressingly explicit details about the deliberate, sadistic enjoyment of the pain suffered by animals, – and by people.
While I obviously abhor the particular abuses described, such communications leave me with a more difficult question: am I, too, complicit? Can I live without colluding with, or even relying on, the practice of cruelty and injustice to someone else, to some other living being, somewhere?
Can we live in ‘peace and pleasantness’ with each other and with nature?
No issue is more urgent