Nature isn’t all loveliness. Yesterday just outside my study I saw a bird prey in the act of tearing open the pigeon it had just killed. I thought it was a sparrow hawk, but minutes later a peregrine perched by the window, looking for another victim.
Nevertheless, I feel awe, wonder, curiosity and joy before nature. Like many, I increasingly appreciate how interdependent we are with the natural world, from the rainfall to the quality of the soil, to the bees and the trees. Ruin nature and we destroy ourselves.
So Noah, the ‘righteous man before God’, the preserver who saves two of every species and ushers them into a new world, ought to be my hero. But he’s not; at least not entirely.
Here’s why. He simply obeys orders. When God tells him the world is wicked and about to be destroyed, he builds the ark as instructed. But he doesn’t argue back. He doesn’t say: ‘How can you, the creator, who holds such power, obliterate your own handiwork which you just recently called ‘good’ or ‘very good’?
Noah says neither a single word to God nor so much as a syllable of warning to his contemporaries. He could have taken up Dylan Thomas’s refrain: ‘Do not go gentle into that good night.’ He could have done like the Jonah who, albeit reluctant, finally got to Nineveh and, covered in whale-spit, shouted down the streets: Change your ways or else this place will be destroyed.
The Zohar has this to say about Noah:
When he came out of the ark and saw the world in ruins, he started to weep and said to God: ‘You, who’re called “merciful and gracious,” shouldn’t you have shown mercy to your creatures?’ God replied: ‘Foolish shepherd; now you tell me! Why didn’t you say that when I instructed you…to build the ark?’ (Zohar 1:69)
Perhaps Noah thought there was no point: God’s mind can’t be changed. Maybe he saw in the power-holders of his day the same obstinacy and bondage to self-interest which has so often characterised it since. But in the Torah, he doesn’t even try. He isn’t the Greta Thunberg of his day.
Avivah Zornberg quotes Andre Neher: Noah shows ‘unqualified apathy.’ That’s harsh, since he does build the ark and cajole even the lions, elephants and mosquitoes aboard. But as Zornberg says in her own words:
[T]he impact of Noah’s silent acquiescence in the destruction of the world is devastating.
The rabbis, as ever, filled in the gaps in the biblical account. What happened during all the years it took Noah to build that ark? His contemporaries mocked him, and he answered back. But even here, Zornberg notes, his ‘imaginative solipsism’ is apparent: God ‘told me to make an ark,’ he says to them, ‘so that I and my household may escape.’
We, on our imperilled planet, in our ‘generation on the cusp,’ need to do more. The Biblical cue lies in the words Mordechai passed to Esther in the hour before Haman’s decree of destruction: ‘If you remain silent now…’
We need to speak up, and above all act, personally, communally, locally, nationally, internationally, for the sake of our beautiful world, on behalf of humanity, for the future. It’s a wonderful world and its children and children’s children deserve to receive it that way.