Celebrating Shabbat Noach
We read in Torah this coming Shabbat the story of the Flood, Noah, the Ark, the Rainbow.
For centuries of Modernity, enlightened opinion about the biblical story of the Flood was that it never happened and it never can, it never will. The destruction of all life on Earth? Preposterous!
No longer. The ancient midrash that human beings might bring about a Flood of Fire -- given new force in a Black Southern song:
”God gave Noah the Rainbow Sign:
No mere water, the Fire next time!”
What can we learn from this preposterous story, now that it stares us in the face – thermonuclear fire and global scorching, fire of our own making? We can see it nit as factual history but as a teaching story, a parable. Waiting for a day to come when we would need to investigate its wisdom.
One oddity in the story can point us toward a specific change: Dates. Times. . It specifies the date when the rain began to fall as "the seventeenth day of the second month." 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: exactly one solar year.
A bow to the universal: If some other nations use a solar year, this happened to us all, we must take account of both ways of measuring time.
And the story 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. They are the only dates in all of Genesis: not Abram’s leaving home, not Jacob’s Godwrestle. Connect this fascination with the specific terms of God's response in the Rainbow Covenant. God 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, meditate, celebrate.
This hyper-productive 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, 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.
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.
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 itsinner 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 scorching 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 mutilated 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. In a war, having more weapons than the enemy might bring victory. But having more H-bombs than the “enemy” brings only more disaster to everyone. Pouring more CO2 into the atmosphere in order to win a “trade war” does not bring “victory”; it brings more disaster for everyone. Suppose we see actions that cause major ecological damage –- nuclear "war" and "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.
Finally, the biggest lesson of all: The need for profound change. The story of the Flood recounts that even God must change at a time of great crisis. The story begins when 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.
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. In my newest book, Dancing in God's Earthquake: The Coming Transformation of Religion, I have tried to do that.)
When Jews have been at our best in living life, this has been their most life-giving 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, we 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.
Our sacred stories need to be renewed, understood anew, transformed. And so must be the more mundane pathways of our lives: our foods, our energy sources, our jobs, our businesses, our governments, our international and transnational relations.