Noah the Quirky Biologist – Noah 5780

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.

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.  

Haleakala Silversword after flowering

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.

Please Let It Not Be Another Intifada – Noach 5776

The violence in Israel right now leaves me feeling worried and confused.  Everyone seems to be throwing up their hands trying to understand what is going on.

It would be one thing if it was a terrorist organization like Hamas, Islamic Jihad or the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade that was planning and carrying out these attacks.  Then, we could point to a particular group with its own ideology, and hold it accountable.  But that is not what has been happening.

What we are seeing is scarier.  Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Hebron, Afula… These attacks have not been coordinated.  They are being carried out by boys and girls, men and women with knives and meat cleavers.  People with families.  People whom we would not expect to be violent.  A young girl.  A thirteen year old boy.  A perversion is taking place that is producing a kind of collective insanity, a national blood-lust.  What else could explain why two teenage cousins would go out into the street, and randomly stab a thirteen year old on a bicycle?

When a society goes astray like this, it is the leaders of that society that must step up and take responsibility for setting it back on course.  But there have been too few voices calling for calm.

What ostensibly set off this violence were claims by some Palestinians that Israel was planning to take the Temple Mount away from Muslims.  It is not true.

When Israel captured the Old City of Jerusalem during the Six Day War in 1967, an Israeli flag was quickly installed on top of the Dome of the Rock.  As soon as he found out about it, Defense Minister Moshe Dayan immediately ordered it removed.  Soon later, he gave authority over the site to the Muslim Waqf, which is charged with maintaining Muslim holy sites.  Jews were forbidden from praying on the Temple Mount.  That has been the status quo arrangement ever since.

Recently, rumors started spreading that Israel was planning to take over the Temple Mount.  Prime Minister Netanyahu immediately denied the rumors, and affirmed that the status quo would remain as it has been for nearly fifty years.

But nobody listened.  Even those who ought to know better have been fanning the flames of violence.  As the rumors were spreading last month, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said: “Every drop of blood spilled in Jerusalem is pure, every martyr will reach paradise, and every injured person will be rewarded by God.”  Then he declared that Jews “have no right to desecrate the mosque with their dirty feet.”  This week he also accused Israel of “executing” Palestinian children.

What does he think he is doing?

As Jeffrey Goldberg writes in The Atlantic, this is not the first time that false rumors of an impending Jewish takeover of the Temple Mount have led to widespread violence.  In 1928, Jews brought a wooden bench up to the Western Wall for elderly worshippers to sit along with a partition to separate men and women for prayer.  Local Muslim leaders stirred up popular anger by declaring that the Jews were planning to take over the Temple Mount.  Amin al-Husseini, the Mufti of Jerusalem, used the incident – the placement of a bench – as proof of a plot against Islam.  He incited Jerusalem Arabs to riot against the Jewish community.  Doctored photographs showing a defaced Dome of the Rock were distributed in Hebron to rile up the community.  In riots the following year, 133 Jews were murdered.

In 2000, the Second Intifada was launched when Ariel Sharon went up to the Temple Mount.  Granted, he took a large military presence with him.  But he had cleared it with Palestinian security officials in advance, who assured him that the situation would remain calm.  And he certainly did not go to pray.

After the visit, Palestinians began protesting, and the leader of the Waqf, on a loudspeaker, called on Palestinians to defend the Al Aqsa Mosque, which Sharon had not even entered.  The protests became violent, and it soon grew into the Second Intifada.  It later turned out that the uprising had been planned in advance by Arafat and other Palestinian leaders, but it was Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount which was used as the pretext to incite Muslims to defend their holy place.

Today, there are many Arab leaders who are fanning the flames of violence, many even more blatantly than Abbas, but it does not seem to be a coordinated strategy.

And to be clear, it is not everyone.  Just three days ago, the Bedouin village of Zarzir, which my children passed through every day on their way to school, organized a public rally for peace.  They called it “We refuse to be Enemies.”  Many of our friends from Kibbutz Hanaton participated.  There were signs and posters in Hebrew, Arabic, and English.  Village leaders, wearing kafiyyehs and holding Israeli flags, spoke against violence and in support of the State of Israel.  But I did not read any news reports about it except for an article by Rabbi Yoav Ende, of Kibbutz Chanaton.

I saw a news clip of Arab news reporter, Lucy Aharish, speaking about as forcefully as a person could in condemning the violence and declaring that there is no justification whatsoever for committing terror.  She blasted Arab leaders for failing to come out and strongly condemn the violence.  That is where she placed the responsibility.

I do not claim that Israel has been perfect.  As you know, I have a lot of disagreements with decisions of the Israeli government over the years.  I think that Israel’s policies have contributed in part to feelings of hopelessness within Palestinian society.

While Israelis are understandably feeling scared, I think it is awful that some have responded to the terror with their own violence and discrimination.  It is inexcusable.

But nothing justifies stabbing a random stranger with a knife, or driving a car into a crowd of people waiting at a bus stop.  There is no moral equivalency when police, soldiers, or even civilians respond with violence to defend against a terrorist who is actively trying to kill an innocent person.  There is no excuse when the leaders of a society glorify a teen-ager who has committed a terrorist act, or fail to do everything they can to stop violence.

I do not have any suggestions for how to solve the chaos that ensues when a society that is not mine has lost its way.

In this morning’s Torah portion, Noach, we read of another society that has lost its way.

“The earth became corrupt before God; the earth was filled with lawlessness (chamas).  When God saw how corrupt the earth was, for all flesh had corrupted its ways on earth (hishchit kol basar et darko), God said to Noach, “I have decided to put an end to all flesh, for the earth is filled with lawlessness (chamas) because of them: I am about to destroy them with the earth.”

Ironically, the word that the Torah uses for “lawlessness” is chamas.  It is just a coincidence, but an ironic one.  Nahum Sarna defines chamas as the “flagrant subversion of the ordered processes of law.”    (JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis, p. 51)  There was no rule of law.  No respect for communal standards.

Then the Torah says ki hishchit kol basar et darko – “for all flesh had corrupted its ways on earth.”

God’s response is not to give them a warning, or a punishment, or to send a Prophet to urge them to change their ways.  God regrets having created humanity, and decides to wipe out all life on earth, saving only representative male and female samples of each species.

After the flood, humanity is just as wicked as before.  It is the same DNA.

But God makes two significant changes.

He tells Noach and his offspring that they must punish those who murder.  “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed.”  This is retributive justice.  According to the theory of evolution, the strongest, most violent people ought to survive.  But God introduces an element to counter the morality of “survival of the fittest.”  Simply put, whatever you do to harm the body of another shall be done to you.  This is the basic premise of retributive justice.  Human societies have to protect their members by punishing those who commit violence.

The second change is a counter to the first.  God declares:  “Never again will I doom the earth because of man, since the devisings of man’s mind are evil from his youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living being, as I have done.”

God knows that human nature has not changed.  People will continue to have an urge to cross boundaries.  But retributive justice alone is not enough.  Forgiveness is also needed.  So even though God know that yetzer lev ha-adam ra mine’urav – “the devisings of man’s mind are evil from his youth,” God promises to not wipe out all life again – even though they may deserve it.  There are times when justice must be set aside in favor of mercy.

This is the challenge that God presents to the children of Noah.  Build societies that are anchored by justice and forgiveness.

Although it seems perpetually elusive, that is my prayer for Israel and Palestine.  One day, both societies will have leaders who take responsibility for their own actions, as well as for their respective people’s actions.  Neither society will tolerate the dehumanization of the other.  Both will recognize that justice cannot be administered selectively.  The two peoples will recognize and protect each others’ sacred places without feeling threatened.  And Israelis and Palestinians will one day be able to hear one another’s stories with a sense of compassion and forgiveness.

For now, as our brothers and sisters are living under the daily threat of terror, we can turn to God in prayer.

Shomer Yisrael — Guardian of Israel,

We pray not to wipe out haters but to banish hatred.

Not to destroy sinners but to lessen sin.

Our prayers are not for a perfect world but a better one

Where parents are not bereaved by the savagery of sudden attacks

Or children orphaned by blades glinting in a noonday sun.

Help us dear God, to have the courage to remain strong, to stand fast.

Spread your light on the dark hearts of the slayers

And your comfort to the bereaved hearts of families of the slain.

Let calm return Your city Jerusalem, and to Israel, Your blessed land.

We grieve with those wounded in body and spirit,

Pray for the fortitude of our sisters and brothers,

And ask you to awaken the world to our struggle and help us bring peace.

Let Us Make a Name for Ourselves – Noach 5775

According to the Torah, all human beings are descended from Adam and Eve.  Then, after humanity is wiped out in the flood, all humans are descended from Noah and his wife.  Why is it so important to specify that we all share a common ancestor?  According to the Mishnah, it is so that no one can say another, my father is better than yours.  We are all descended from the first Primordial Human, Adam, whom the Torah describes as created in God’s image.  (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5) Thus, equality and freedom are central concepts in our tradition.

Soon after creation, however, humanity starts to move away from this ideal.  Within ten generations, human society has become so corrupt and violent that God simply cannot take it any more.  God looks at all of the wickedness and violence, sees the way that human beings have corrupted the entire planet, and becomes sad and regretful for having ever made humanity.

So God brings a flood, appointing Noah and his family to be the sole human survivors, protectors of each animal species, and progenitors of human life in the new world that will follow.

What will change this time?  Presumably, things will be different in Creation 2.0.  Indeed, God plans ahead for the change, giving rules to humanity this time so that they do not repeat the same mistakes.

But has anything really changed?

God knows that Noah’s offspring will be no better than their ante-diluvian ancestors.

After Noah exits the ark, he offers a sacrifice.  That’s a good start.  God appreciates the gesture, and declares “Never again will I doom the earth because of man…”  (Genesis 8:21)

Fantastic!  Is it because God is so pleased with Noah’s piety?  Not exactly.

The Lord continues, “…since the devisings of man’s mind are evil from his youth.”  Nature or nurture?  It’s nature.  Humans have the same capacity for evil that they have always had.  It is part of our D.N.A.  Nevertheless, God makes a commitment to let the experiment continue, acknowledging that it an occasional intervention may be warranted.

Within a few generations, humanity seems to be heading down a familiar path.  The Torah introduces us to major characters in the generations following the flood and occasionally shares brief notes or stories about them.  We meet Nimrod, son of Cush, son of Ham, son of Noah.  Nimrod is described as “the first man of might on earth.  He was a mighty hunter before the Lord.”  (Genesis 10:8-9)  He built a kingdom in Shinar, otherwise known as Babylonia, otherwise known as Mesopotamia, otherwise known as present-day Iraq and Syria.

Tradition identifies Nimrod as the first King.  How does he ascend to that position?  The medieval commentator Abravanel points to Nimrod’s hunting prowess.  People see how powerful he is to be able to defeat lions and bears, and stand in awe of him.  When Nimrod turns his attention towards his fellow human beings, he easily vanquishes and conquers them, thus building the world’s first empire.  With empire comes progress.  The development of political life, technological innovation, human wisdom – all are made possible by civilization.

But Nimrod and his generation go astray, according to commentators, pursuing progress for its own sake, rather than as a means to a greater good.  Power begets power, as the saying goes.  Where the violence and oppression before the flood had been chaotic and random, now it is state-sponsored.

The Torah continues with the well-known story of the Tower of Babel.  At this time, we are told, everyone on earth speaks the same language and lives in the same place.  Humanity has gained the ability to control the environment in which it lives.  From their place in the lowlands, people figure out how to take mud, shape it, apply fire, and make bricks.  They now have the ability to make life better, safer, and more meaningful.  They can build structures to protect them from the elements, buildings to store food, schools to learn, libraries to store knowledge, and temples in which to worship.  So what do they do with this technological innovation, this amazing new ability?

“Come, let us build us a city, and a tower with its top in the sky…” they say to one another.  For what purpose?  Efficient apartment dwelling?  A university?  A hospital?  A town hall?  A sanctuary?  No.  Those are not what the people are interested in.  They are not going to use their technological abilities to serve a greater good.    Their aims are more self-centered.

V’na’aseh lanu shem.  “Let us build us a city, and a tower with its top in the sky to make a name for ourselves.”  (Genesis 11:4)

They want to build it as a timeless monument to human progress.

A midrash teaches that the tower gets to be so high that it takes a really long time and a lot of effort to travel from the bottom to the top.  Whenever a brick would fall, the workers would collapse to the ground and weep, “Woe is us.  When will another brick be hauled up to take its place?”  But when a person falls, nobody pays any attention.  (Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer 24)

Why do they build the tower?  Because they can.  This is the end result of what Nimrod introduces to the world.  It is a description of a totalitarian society in which the state is everything and the individual is nothing.  There is no God in such a situation.

God looks down at this rising edifice to human power and sees that something must change.  This is not what God had intended.  So God babbles their tongues, and they can no longer understand one another.  The building project grinds to a halt.  Then God scatters the people over the face of the earth.

On one level, The Tower of Babel is an origin story that explains why the earth contains so many people with different languages, cultures, and beliefs.  But it is also a story with lessons about human nature, politics, and equality.

Judaism is highly skeptical of political leaders.  The idea that power corrupts seems to be ingrained in the Torah.  Deuteronomy’s laws of Kings are all about limiting the powers and rights of the monarch.  Kings and societies are judged not by how much land they acquire or taxes they collect, but by how the most marginal people in society are treated.  Why are political leaders so suspect?  Because politics inevitably leads to inequality.  A subject, by definition, is not equal to the king.

In our democracy, ideally, the power of government is derived from the people, and there are checks and balances to prevent any one person or group from gaining too much power.  In reality, we know that American society has gross inequalities, whether in money, political power, educational opportunities, health care access, and so on.

The Tower of Babel suggests that the solution to the problem of too much power is diversity.  People and nations need to be free to pursue meaningful lives in different ways.  Our tradition recognizes this as ideal.

The Messianic future envisioned by Judaism does not imagine that all nations will one day unite and become a single people.  That has never been our vision.  In the Messianic Age, it is simply that all peoples on earth will recognize God as the Creator and ruler.  It is in this morning’s parashah that the Rabbis identify the seven Noachide commandments; seven laws given to all humanity that form the backbone of ethics.  As long as a people abides by those essential norms, it should be free and encouraged to go its own way, while respecting other peoples’ rights to do the same.

A thirteenth century Spanish commentator, Menachem Meiri, in considering the Christians and Muslims of his day, declares that as long as they are gedurim b’darchei hadat, bound by the laws of morality and justice, they are to be considered as equal to Jews in all respects.  That is a fairly remarkable position for that that time and place.

Elsewhere in our texts, we are taught that the righteous of all the nations earn a share in the world to come.  So you see, Judaism advocates a healthy respect for diversity.  There are other ways to worship God and other ways to organize societies other than the Jewish way, and that is a good thing.  This is a lesson from the Tower of Babel.

It is also good from a practical perspective.  A society’s embrace of diversity and pluralism serves as a check against oppression and violence.  It is why a country’s freedom is typically measured by factors like religious freedom, the fairness of elections, the existence of civil liberties, freedom of the press, and the absence of corruption.

In every age, there are Nimrod’s who seek to suppress freedom and deny equality.  Israel’s Defense Minister, Moshe Ya’alon, has been in Washington D.C. this week.  I heard an interview in which he was asked about ISIS.  He predicted that the Middle East is never going to return to what it was a few years ago.  The borders of countries like Iraq, Syria, and Iran, were drawn up arbitrarily after World War One.  The countries themselves were held together for almost a century by totalitarian dictators from minority tribes who forcefully imposed themselves on their populations, much like Nimrod thousands of years ago, who exercised power for the sake of power.  But these artificial nations were comprised of diverse peoples with different cultures, religions, and languages.  In order to maintain power, that diversity had to be suppressed.  The violence and terror we are witnessing today is driven by religiously-fueled zealots who also reject the value of diversity, deny equality, and subjugate all who come under their authority.

We have been watching in horror as ISIS and other militant Islamic groups fight to create a caliphate, an empire, that would oppress anyone who does not conform to their narrow belief system.  It is a scary, totalitarian ideology.  How ironic that the story of the Tower of Babel took place smack dab in the middle of the war zone!

If we learn one thing from the Tower of Babel, let it be that God wants diversity.  The Mishnah cited above regarding humanity’s shared common ancestor (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5) also teaches that when a person kills another, it is as if s/he has destroyed the entire world.  It goes on to explain that when people mint coins from a coin press, every single coin comes out exactly the same.  Not so with God, for God stamped each person with the seal of Adam, and yet no two people are alike.  Thus each person is obligated to say, “For my sake was the world created.”

People of faith would do well to remember this.