[From Godwrestling -- Round 2 by Rabbi Arthur Waskow (Jewish Lights, 1996), chapter 17]
The story of the Flood recounts that violence, corruption, ruin were rampant on the earth. God, seeing that the human imagination was drawn toward evil, determined to destroy all life, except for one human family led by Noah, and one pair of every species. God rained death on every being except those who took refuge with Noah on the Ark.
One solar year later, the waters subsided so that these refugees could emerge. And then God, though explicitly
asserting once again that the human imagination is drawn toward evil, took an almost opposite tack: God promised that the cycles of life must never be destroyed again, insisted that new rules of behavior must govern human action in the future, and gave the Rainbow as a sign of this covenant.
“God” here plays the role of karma: “Whatever you sow, that’s what you reap." Ifall life is, in fact, connected, then walling ourselves off from the weave of life-breath was bound to cut us off from our own breathing.
What does the Torah teach that we should do -- that is, what ethics does it teach? Torah's teaching how to prevent the Flood is far less explicit than how to deal with it once it is on the way.
What ethical failure led to the Flood? Vaguely, the Torah specifies only "chamas" – ruination, perhaps connected with "heat." Humanity at large, not a central institution or person, was to blame.
The rabbis usually asserted that the universe is built on “measure for measure”: God’s rewards and punishments fit our action. So the rabbis asked, “Since the purging of the earth came through water, what was being wrongly done through water?” And they answered that before the Flood, all the species were mixing the water of their semen with each other. This water washed away all biological boundaries, confounding the clarity of
God’s creation; so God sent a Flood of water to wash away all boundaries.
Today we know that few species can mix together and propagate in this way. But we have also invented “genetic recombination,” by which indeed the genes of one species can be introduced inside the DNA of another. Should we take the fantasy of the rabbis as a warning to explore this new technology with the greatest care, if at all, lest we bring upon ourselves a global disaster?
The very fact of the biblical Rainbow Covenant and the inclusion within it of not only all humans but "every breathing life-form with you" hints that covenanting itself is an ethical path, a way of preventing eco-disaster.
In that light, it may be surprising that the Torah's post-Flood ethic includes permission to eat animal flesh, perhaps in the hope of a compromise to prevent murder and cannibalism. In the rabbinic expansion of the Seven
Commandments of the Children of Noah, the rabbis seem to assume that the provisions of basic justice – forbidding murder and theft, requiring that all societies establish courts of justice – may establish an ethical system that will prevent a future Flood. Their only direct rule connecting human with other life is that the biblical permission to eat animals is limited by prohibiting eating part of a living animal.
When it comes to mitigating disaster rather than preventing it, we learn more. Noah is not an expert on rain, or ships, or animals. He is simply a righteous person, and some of the Rabbinic commentators conclude that he is not even extraordinarily righteous. After all, they point out, when God threatened to destroy two cities, Abraham
protested; when God threatened to wipe out one people, Moses intervened. Noah, when he was warned that a whole world was in peril, held his tongue.
Righteous? Middling righteous, compared to those around him.
The Noah story teaches that when all life is in danger, any of us who regard ourselves
as simply reasonably decent people -- "middling righteous" -- are obligated to act.
What must Noah and his family do? They must preserve all life. The first "species preservation act" turns out to be not the one passed by the United States Congress in 1977; it is the command of God to Noah.
Is the danger now over and done? Long ago, the Rabbis told of Abraham watching the fires that destroyed Sodom and Gomorra. “But, God,” said Abraham, “You promised never again to destroy the world through such a Flood. Surely You did not mean to rule out only a Flood of water? Surely You did not mean that You might send a
Flood of Fire?”
Or as the Southern Black song puts it, "God gave Noah the Rainbow Sign: No more water. The fire next time!"
Suppose we see actions that cause major ecological damage – even including nuclear
"war" and economic competition often called "trade wars" – not as war at all but falling into the category of Flood? That might change our ethical outlook in dealing with such actions.
For example, those who say that we must cut down the Oregon forests to compete with businesses that are burning the Amazon, or that we must make still more automobiles that fill the air with carbon dioxide
to keep ahead of others who are selling automobiles, are thinking in the metaphor of economic war, not that of Flood. In a Flood, any act that pours out yet more destruction is an attack on the planet as a whole, not on a
competitive nation or corporation. If we can change our language, we might change our future.
The story of the Flood is obsessed with time and dates. It specifies the date when the rain began to fall as
"the seventeenth day of the second month." It specifies how long the rain lasted, the date when the
waters stopped their rising, the date when dry ground first appeared, the date when the Ark landed. It names the date when the Ark’s passengers could disembark and receive the Rainbow Covenant: the "twenty‑seventh day of the second month." One lunar year plus eleven days from start to finish: exactly one solar year.
The exactitude with which these dates are given is still more surprising when we consider that they are the only dates specified in all of Genesis. Indeed, from the Creation until the Exodus from Egypt, the Bible gives no dates except those connected with the Flood. There is no date for the Tower of Babel, or Abraham's departure from the town of Ur, or the Binding of Isaac, or Jacob's wrestle with God, or Joseph's accession to power in Egypt. Only dates for the Flood.
What are we to learn? Although the rabbis of the Talmud debated whether the "second" month was in the spring or
fall, they never suggested that the dates be put to practical use. Indeed, these dates have never been
used in the life‑practice of Jews, or any other religious community. They have not been used as the date of
the Exodus is used for Passover or the date of rededication of the Temple for Hanukkah.
Why were Passover and Hanukkah made dates of celebration? Because it was crucial for every generation to reexperience the Exodus and the Temple’s rededication. But the dates of the Flood and theRainbow never needed to be used -- because no generation ever faced the possibility that all life might be
destroyed. No generation, that is, until our own.
So the Torah's emphasis on the dates of the Flood might point us toward an ethic of
observing grief and hope as a way to prevent a future eco-disaster.
When? The Talmudic rabbis debated over what month was the second month, depending on
whether the “first” month comes with the spring equinox and Passover or the
fall equinox and Rosh Hashanah.
Most of them decided that in regard to the Flood, the Bible meant that
the "second month" was in the fall. But one of the most respected rabbis, Joshua, and "all
the sages of the other nations" thought it meant the spring.
Such a comment was unusual for the Talmud; rarely did the rabbis turn to "the
sages of the other nations" to hear how they might interpret Torah. Yet in the case of the universal Flood,
they sought the wisdom of the other nations. Perhaps this was their way of
acknowledging that some events both include and transcend all cultural
boundaries -- and that the danger of universal death is one of these.
Joshua’s view, hundreds of synagogues and other Jewish groups began in the spring
of 1982, in the days between the 17th and the 27th of Iyyar, to observe the
anniversaries of the Flood and the Rainbow. They prayed, studied Torah, created
new rituals to recognize that all life was in danger ‑‑ and to explore how all
life could be preserved. Echoing the Talmud’s hint of universal wisdom, many of
them invited Christian and Unitarian churches to join with them in the
From this work, congregations recalled how powerful and how
necessary it is to move through the yearly festivals, addressing with each
festival the question of the preservation of our planet. They rediscovered the public power the festivals could carry, if they were carried into public space.
- Some celebrated a Passover Seder
against "the Ultimate Pharaoh," in the Nevada desert where the
nuclear Auschwitzes of the future were being tested underground. They gathered
in a circle to recite and chant and dance a new version of the Haggadah,
preparing to walk onto the forbidden site of the nuclear weapons tests and be arrested.
In the midst of the Seder, someone shouted in awe and joy, “Look up!” There,
emblazoned in the sky where there had been no rain for many months, was a Rainbow.
- In 1984, some built a sukkah ‑‑ the
fragile, leafy, leaky, hut that celebrates the Jewish harvest festival in
Washington DC between the White House and the Soviet Embassy, as a symbol of
the fragility of all peoples and life-forms, and the need to make our security
not from steel and concrete fallout shelters or "invulnerable" laser
shields but from accepting how vulnerable all Earth has become.
- On the seventh day of Sukkot in 1998,
some went with willow branches to the banks of the Hudson River. On that day
for millennia, Jews have danced seven dances around a Torah Scroll; have beaten
willows — the tree that always
grows near rivers — on the earth; and have prayed for
fructifying rain and for the prevention of drought, famine, plagues of locusts.
In our generation, the tradition had almost died out. But some Jews (joined
by some Catholic nuns, an Iroquois
teacher, and the secular- spiritual leader Pete Seeger) renewed it, chanting prayers that
the river be healed of the PCBs a corporation had poured into it, that rain
should be cleansed of acid, the seas of oil slick, the air of methane, the
earth of pesticides.
As this new form of Jewish ethical community focused on "Eco-Judaism," by celebrating these rhythms in time,
they realized that the Flood story teaches that affirming the rhythmic cycles
of life is crucial to preventing the death of life. When the Flood began, the
normal cycles halted. Perhaps they had already been thwarted and ignored, and
the Flood came precisely to call forth a conscious understanding that the
cycles had stopped.
The Bible says that just before the rain began to fall, there
were seven days while Noah’s family and all their passengers sat waiting in the
Ark. The rabbis teach that during
those seven days the sun rose in the West and set in the East. In other words, the seven days of
Creation were being run backward ‑‑ and so the sun reversed itself. During the precise solar year that all
the animals and humans spent aboard the Ark, the rabbis also say they all
refrained from sex ‑‑ refrained from initiating the life cycle.
When Noah wanted to test out the dry land, he tried to restart the great cycles of night and day, death and life. First he sent out a raven, black as the night, named arva , a word similar to erev, "evening.” Then he sent out a dove, white as the morning, named yonah a word similar to yom, "day." The raven, bird of carrion, cleared the earth of the dead carcasses that were the end‑product of the last life-cycle before the Flood.
The dove brought back for food the olive branch, the first new life that had sprung up after the great disaster.
Noah's effort to renew the cycles won God's response in the Rainbow Covenant. God’s
promise to renew and preserve life mentions precisely the timely cycles through
which life renews itself:
Never again will I doom the earth ...
Never again will I destroy all life
So long as the earth endures,
Seedtime and harvest,
Cold and heat,
Summer and winter,
Day and night,
Shall not cease.
... This is the sign that I set
For the covenant between Me and you
And every living creature with you,
For the generations forever:
I have set my bow in the clouds.
What are we to learn from this? In the age of Modernity, the sacred cycles of time have been thwarted. We have let our desire for “productivity" destroy our sense of holy time and holy cycles. We have become so drunk on our new
ability to produce goods that we have forgotten to rest, reflect, contemplate,
This hyperproductive mode, in which time is only a raw material of production, has
taken us to the brink of hyper‑destruction. In a world that discards meditation and celebration as —
literally — a waste of time, the H‑bomb, destruction of the ozone layer, acid rain, deforestation, the climate crisis,
are all inevitable. The Flood and the Rainbow remind us that we must renew the cycles and our celebration of them
in order to live.
Noah’s own name means “the restful one.” Only willingness to rest can save all life.
Perhaps religious communities are especially responsible to say that not only hard work
and dire warnings, but also joyful rest and joyful hope are necessary if we are
to heal our planet. The Rainbow was an ensign of hope, a flag of new
possibility. It was God's reminder that not only human beings but even God must
have a symbol of hope, if life is to be renewed.
What else does the Rainbow teach? The Bible specifies that the Rainbow came on Mt. Ararat. This is surprising and
important. Although the Flood was mythically universal — like water in that there was no place to pin it down
— it ends at a well-known place with a specific name. Why there?
Because from Ararat, the mountain peak that looms in Turkey high above the Middle East,
the Fertile Crescent is a unity. Just as the earth looks like a unity from space, so the "whole
known world" looked from Ararat. That was where the human race looked like a single family in all its
inner variation: From many colors, one “adam.”
Indeed, the Rainbow itself was a heavenly reflection of the great arc of human
settlements across the Middle East. And the Rainbow’s varied colors remind us
that we can only preserve human unity if we accept human diversity. Just as the
Flood perched the Ark upon Ararat where the Crescent could appear in its unity,
so the same technology that gave us the Bomb and global warming perched the
rockets high above us, to give us our first glimpse of ourselves as one great
ball of beauty. It is our collective danger that teaches us we are connected.
The great rabbinic commentator Nachmanides wrote that God gave the Rainbow by
turning upside‑down the bow of war. "See," said God; "My bow can no longer shoot from
Heaven. It is now my sign of peace and love and hope."
And in our day, ultimate destruction is also connected with the Rainbow. Those who have observed the awesome
explosion of an H‑bomb have reported how beautiful and terrifying are the flashing myriad sparks of color that appear within the mushroom cloud. All the colors of the rainbow ‑‑shattered.
Similarly, in the oil slicks that spread for hundreds of miles across the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, the smeary, distorted colors of the Rainbow shone as a symbol of the disaster.
So the danger of the Flood of Fire still surrounds us. Those of us who, like Noah,
are no experts must begin the building of the Earth as Ark. We must turn away
from metaphors of military and economic warfare. We must consciously permeate
every aspect of our lives with the effort to preserve life on this planet. All
this so that we can fulfill the promise of the Rainbow Covenant. For now it is we who hold the fiery bow
of destruction in our hands, aimed at each other. It is our turn to make the Rainbow.
We can learn still more from the story of the Flood. We can learn a method: how to think when one great era is
succeeded by another. For the story echoes the wisdom of the era before the Flood, transmuted to make new wisdom afterward.
The Flood story puts this transmuted wisdom into God's own mouth. Before the Flood, God saw that all the
urgings of the human heart and mind were bent toward evil, "all the
day." Indeed, this is why God decided to blot out all life on earth. After the Flood, something about the
new situation -- perhaps a planet full of carcasses? -- taught God some new
conclusions. For in almost the same words, God says, "The urgings of the human heart are evil, from youth
onward," and therefore God decides never again to doom the earth.
Reinterpreting our older wisdom is the method by which we must learn today. It is not enough to reject the old
traditions; nor is it enough to accept them. We must hear them, learn from them, wrestle with them, wring
from them their quintessential truth, cast aside old husks of former meaning that are no longer fully truthful ‑‑ and we must live by our new understanding of their ancient wisdom.
When Jews have been at our best in living life, this has been their quintessential
method — the midrashic method, the Godwrestling method. But in a time when the
Flood threatens and the Rainbow beckons, this process needs to become a path
that everyone, not only Jews, can walk. So here is a crucial learning that the
Jewish people can offer, from its own corner of the hologram, to all of earth
and all its earthlings:
You can learn from your own wisdom and transform it, without abandoning your own identity. We have done
it when in a moment of great crisis we invented Rabbinic Judaism; in the story of the Flood, God does it; each human community can do it. Indeed, you must — if we are all to share in the planet’s flowering, not its doom.
Why is this important? Because most human communities would rather die than abandon
their identities. They will choose to live and change only if they understand how to do this by renewing their identities.
There is yet another crucial piece of wisdom that we can offer from our corner of the
hologram: The wisdom of rhythmic sacred time, celebrating the spirals of the
sun and moon and earth as well as the spirals of our history.
The rhythm of reflection and renewal through the midrashic
method, and the rhythm of reflection and renewal through Shabbat: these two
gifts can bring new life in times of crisis. It is no accident they come
together; for they are deeply and forever intertwined.