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.

Don’t Cut Off the Species (Human or Otherwise) – Emor 5779

In 1598, Dutch sailors landed on the Island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean.  There, they discovered a creature that no human being had ever before seen.  They named the bird the Dodo.  Poor bird.  With such a name, you know it was doomed from the start.

The Dodo was not particularly fast, and it was incapable of flying.  Apparently, it was also rather tasty.  A hungry sailor, without much difficulty, could easily catch a Dodo and roast it up nice and juicy. Imported animals like pigs, dogs, and rats found that Dodo eggs made for a scrumptious snack, and were easy to steal out of the nest.

Within a few decades, the Dodo was no more.  It has since become the most famous extinct animal on the planet.  I suspect it might have something to do with the name.

It serves as a cautionary tale.  The Dodo’s range was limited to the small island of Mauritius, so it literally had nowhere else to go.  Human greed, lack of compassion, and absence of foresight led to the disappearance of this strange bird.

There are categories of Jewish law that address these character deficiencies.  The laws of Bal Tashchit prohibit us from using up resources wastefully.  Tza’ar ba’alei chayim, means the “suffering of living creatures,” and refers to commandments protecting animals from unnecessary suffering. These and other areas of Jewish law have their roots in the Torah.  One of the important sources of Jewish law regulating how we treat animals appears in this morning’s Torah portion, Parashat Emor.

Most of the parashah focuses on rules for the priests.  After describing special privileges as well as limitations on their behavior, God gives Moses instructions pertaining to animals that are brought by Israelites as sacrifices.  In the midst of these regulations, we read the following commandment:

וְשׁ֖וֹר אוֹ־שֶׂ֑ה אֹת֣וֹ וְאֶת־בְּנ֔וֹ לֹ֥א תִשְׁחֲט֖וּ בְּי֥וֹם אֶחָֽד׃

No animal from the herd or from the flock shall be slaughtered on the same day with its young.  (Lev. 22:28)

This verse seems fairly straightforward.  Most commentators connect this passage to another passage from the book of Deuteronomy.

If, along the road, you chance upon a bird’s nest, in any tree or on the ground, with fledglings or eggs and the mother sitting over the fledglings or on the eggs, do not take the mother together with her young.  Let the mother go, and take only the young, in order that you may fare well and have a long life.  (Deut: 22:6-7)

Both passages address the relationship between an animal and its offspring.  In this morning’s parashah, the focus is on herd and flock animals.  In Deuteronomy, the focus is on bird eggs or fledglings that one may find in a nest.  For both commandments, the Torah offers no explanation or rationale.

Maimonides, the great medieval Rabbi, physician, and community leader, sees in these commandments a lesson about compassion.  He focuses on the emotional pain of the mother.

“There is no difference in this case between the pain of man and the pain of other living beings,” he writes, “since the love and tenderness of the mother for her young ones is not produced by reasoning, but by imagination, and this faculty exists not only in man but in most living beings. If the Torah provides that such grief should not be caused to cattle or birds, how much more careful must we be to not cause grief to our fellow men.”  (Guide for the Perplexed III:48)

In other words, the Torah commands us to consider the emotional suffering of all living creatures.  Even though we are permitted to consume meat, we still must be concerned with the suffering of animals.  It is noteworthy that he does not hold that we should be merciful towards animals exclusively for their own sake.  Maimonides is ultimately concerned with the cultivation of character.  Compassion for animals is important because it conditions us to be compassionate towards our fellow human beings.

Nachmanides, living shortly after Maimonides, has great respect for his predecessor.  He quotes him often, although usually it is to disagree with his explanations. Nachmanides claims that both commandments are meant to discourage us from having a cruel and unforgiving heart.

Then he continues.  Even though we are permitted to eat meat, provided that we slaughter the animal correctly, the Torah does not permit us to be so destructive as to destroy the species.  When a person kills the mother and her offspring on the same day, or takes the eggs or fledglings without first sending away the mother bird, it is as if that person has cut off the entire species.  (Nachmanides on Deut. 22:7)

What a radical statement!  Slaughtering two generations of an animal on the same day, from a symbolic standpoint, is like eradicating the species.

I am pretty sure that the concept of species eradication was not on people’s minds in thirteenth century Spain.  For Nachmanides to bring it up is surprising.

Like Maimonides, Nachmanides is still mainly focused on the harmful effects that such a destructive action has on a person’s character.  If God was truly concerned with animals, why would we be allowed to eat them in the first place, and why would God have commanded that we offer them as sacrifices?  The Torah’s concern with animal suffering, or with species extinction, is ultimately about the harmful impact that such callous behavior has on the human soul. Nevertheless, Nachmanides seems to be aware that species extinction is a problem, and that human beings have an important role as caretakers of the earth which, after all, belongs to God.

Today, we are very much aware that species can become extinct through human carelessness and callousness – and not just symbolically.  Just look at the Dodo.

Two weeks ago, the United Nations issued a chilling report from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services.  It was the most comprehensive study of its kind.  Species are now going extinct at a rate between 10 and 100 times greater than the average over the past 10 million years, and the rate is increasing.  Out of the approximately 8 million species of plants and animals on earth, one million are at risk of extinction in the coming decades as a direct result of humanity’s impact on the planet.  

The report pointed to five primary ways that human activity has produced these deteriorations in ecosystems.  They are, starting with the greatest impact: (1) changes in land and sea use; (2) direct exploitation of organisms; (3) climate change; (4) pollution and (5) invasive alien species.

The Chair of the committee, Sir Robert Watson, warned: “The health of ecosystems on which we and all other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever.  We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide.”

In other words, if we take a human-centered approach (like Maimonides and Nachmanides), the harm that we have caused to the global environment puts humanity at risk.

He goes on to say that all hope is not gone  “…it is not too late to make a difference, but only if we start now at every level from local to global…  Through ‘transformative change’, nature can still be conserved, restored and used sustainably – this is also key to meeting most other global goals.  By transformative change, we mean a fundamental, system-wide reorganization across technological, economic and social factors, including paradigms, goals and values.”

We have a lot of work to do.

Jewish law does not typically make broad, sweeping pronouncements upon entire industries.  It does not prescribe government regulations, nor does it make specific pronouncements about how to balance economic growth with sustainability.  

Jewish law tends to focus on the specific case before the individual.  It is concerned with the measurable impacts of a person’s behavior.  But Judaism does have something to say more generally about our relationship to the Earth, and our responsibility to the living things that call it home.

Nachmanides looked at the Torah’s prohibitions against slaughtering two generations of animals on the same day, and declared it to be the symbolic equivalent to species extinction.  

What would he say about the ways in which we consume the planet’s bounties today?  Or about the impact that human expansion has on waterways and forests?  Or how the pollution that is dumped into the air, water and ground when resources are extracted threatens the survival of indigenous plants and animals?

He might say that it comes down to how each of us consumes the resources of our planet.  We know that the impact of human progress extends way beyond what we see right in front of us.  We also know that the risk of species extinction is not merely symbolic.  We should not pretend otherwise.  We cannot bury our heads in the sand.

Psalms declares “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell within it.”  With the knowledge that we now have, can we say that our behavior, as a species, honors this sentiment?

What would it look like to live in a global society that honored the earth as belonging to God, and recognized that we are one of millions of species that depend on it to thrive?

Wouldn’t it be nice to know.