I was blessed to be able to go on a short vacation this week to Hawaii. We stayed on the island of Maui. The most memorable activity was hiking in the crater on top of Mount Haleakala, which stands at just over 10,000 feet above sea level. Its extreme isolation, combined with its height, results in a unique ecosystem. The terrain looks like Mars, and is almost as barren, except for one remarkable plant that grows only on Mount Haleakala. It is called argyroxiphium sandwicense subsp. macrocephalum, otherwise known as the Haleakala Silversword.
The Haleakala Silversword grows only above 6,900 feet. The plant is spherical. It is comprised of spiny greenish, silvery leaves that are specially adapted to collect moisture and reflect sunlight to its base. It grows in volcanic rock, and tolerates the freezing temperatures and high winds that buffet it.
Here is the remarkable thing. The Silversword grows very slowly, taking up to 50 years to reach its full size of 1.6 feet in diameter. Then, in a period of just a few weeks, it sends a stalk of hundreds of flowers shooting up to as high as 6.6 feet. The flowers are pollinated by insects between June and September. Then, having achieved its reproductive purpose, the plant withers and dies.
Isn’t nature amazing? Good job God.
But then humans came along. Climbers used to pick the plants so that they could bring down proof of having climbed to the summit. Goats and cows, introduced to Hawaii by humans, were also eating up the slow-growing plant. By the 1920’s, the Haleakala Silversword was nearly extinct.
It was then that the National Park Service took over. They fenced out the goats and cows and prohibited digging up the plants. Through careful stewardship, Haleakala Silversword populations rebounded. The Silversword can now be seen in abundance on the one place on earth that offers the perfect growing conditions.
In this morning’s Torah portion, God assigns a similar task to Noah. God tells Noah, “Noah, I’ve got a job for you. Humanity has lost its way. I wish I had never made them. But what are you gonna do? I’m sending a flood to destroy all life and give it a second shot. I need you to build an ark. Make it 300 cubits long, 50 cubits wide, and 30 cubits high. Give it three decks. Put in a skylight. Then, I want you, your wife, and your sons and their wives to gather a male and female of every species of animal that lives on land or in the air and bring them on board. Don’t forget to pack food. “
So Noah gets to work.
A cubit is about a foot and a half. That means there was approximately 101,250 square feet of living space, which is just over 2.3 acres. Eight people had to live there with all of those animals for a full 12 months. It must have really stunk.
Although the Torah does not describe it, imagine what life on the ark must have been like. The Rabbis did. Numerous midrashim emphasize how attentive Noah was to the needs of all the animals. He knew exactly what food each species required, and exactly when and how it needed to be fed.
He is like a quirky biologist who feels more at peace among the four legged, the furry, the scaled and the feathered than he does among his own kind. Noah “gets” animals. It is people with whom he cannot relate.
One Rabbi claims that Noah, in addition to preserving animals, brings seed samples and saplings to ensure the survival of plant species.
Perhaps this is what the Torah means when it describes Noah as being righteous in his generation, and walking with God. He, alone among humanity, has compassion for other creatures.
This is the kind of person that God needs right now. God, who cares for all creatures, requires a servant who emulates this quality. Noah is a kind of naturalist-conservationist. He is the perfect man for the job.
One Talmudic Sage imagines a conversation between Abraham’s servant, Eliezer, and Shem, Noah’s eldest son. (BT Sanhedrin 108b) Eliezer asks Shem, “What was it like for you on the ark?”
“Oy, so much trouble we had. Some animals like to eat in the daytime, so we had to feed them in the daytime. Some animals eat at night, so we had to feed them at night. And there was one animal, the chameleon—dad didn’t even know what it ate. One day, he is sitting and cutting up a pomegranate. Suddenly, a worm wriggles out. The chameleon’s tongue shoots out of its mouth and the worm is gone. Chameleons eat worms. Who knew? After that day, we would mash up bran and leave it out on the counter. When it became wormy, the chameleons feasted…”
In another midrash (Tanhuma Noah 9), Noah and his family are so busy taking care of all the animals that they do not get a wink of sleep for the entire twelve month cruise. One time, Noah is late bringing food to the lions. (A mistake he made exactly once) One of the lions is not too happy about having to wait for lunch, so it bites him in the leg, leaving Noah with a limp.
These legends show Noah and his family neglecting their own needs, foregoing their own comfort, even risking their lives, to take care of the animals with which they have been entrusted. It is the task for which they are chosen, for without them, the creatures on the ark will not survive.
The parallels to our current situation should be obvious. Habitat destruction, climate change, trash in the oceans, pollution in the air.
From Noah, we learn that compassion for other living creatures will require us to sacrifice comfort, forego luxuries, and take risks. If our efforts to consume less don’t result in a material change to our standard of living, it probably means that our efforts are superficial and we are not doing enough.
As I say this, I am cognizant of my own complicity. I opened this d’rash describing my trip to Hawaii, which included a round trip flight for which the carbon footprint equalled more than half a metric ton.
Noah stood out from his generation in some way. Maybe it was this: he was the one willing to put his money where his mouth is.