03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Stopping Today's Flood

I have been wondering lately, "If the earth could talk to us, in our language, what would it be saying? If animals could talk to us in our language, what would they be saying?" As humans, we take pride in our ability to communicate, dialogue and assess issues that face us. I wonder if animals get together, out in the depths of the forests and say, "man, what are we going to do about these humans? How are we supposed to live with all of this mess that they are creating? Maybe we should revolt? Send the elephants and horses into cities, swarm them with bees? Maybe get the pigeons to hover over large areas until we get some change?"

They probably don't do this, I know, but I kind of wish they could and would. In regard to our earth, and the challenges we face, our human voices often are not heard and I feel that we need a more radical and aggressive approach to the urgency of global climate change and all that comes with it. So, if I am not going to get herds of wild beasts holding a sit-in at coal refineries, then I guess we will need to go with something else!

In synagogues around the world this week, we read Parshat Noach, the story of Noah and the flood, and in congregations around the country, many rabbis are choosing to speak on the issue of climate change and human responsibility, relating this modern devastation to the primordial devastation we read about in the Torah. The story of the flood is a well-known epic, teaching us about the destruction and recreation of the Earth by God, with the help of Noah and his family. We read in the Torah that the reason for the flood was the fact that "the earth was filled with violence." (Gen. 6:11) Many of us, I imagine, understand this to mean that people were killing each other in rampant fashion, and indeed, many of the midrashim on these verses indicate the belief that the earth was filled with murder, theft, sexual immoralities and other depravities. However, one intriguing teaching I read this week, from the American Jewish World Service, introduced me to other midrashim, commentaries and stories, that speak more potently to us today as we face the possibility of a human induced "flood."

In the Jerusalem Talmud, it states that, "If a countryman brought a basket of vegetables to market, they would edge up to it, one after the other, and abstract a bit, each in itself of petty value." (Talmud Yerushalmi, Bava Metzia 4:2) In discussing this piece, the author of the teaching, Daniel Bloom, raises the point that one might assume if people were taking small amounts of food from each other, this must have been a time of great scarcity and lack. However, in a stunning piece from Louis Ginzburg's Legends of the Jews, we learn the exact opposite. This time period, according to the rabbis' imagination, was actually one of great plenty and abundance. The abundance made people contemptuous and rude, and they showed no respect for one another. They stole the little bits others had, even though their harvest would yield enough food for forty years. And finally, we learn from Rashi, the great 11th century French commentator, that Noah actually took 120 years to build the ark, potentially hoping that people would hear his message of impending doom and repent. The coming of the flood was a slow moving process by God. Bloom's conclusion, one that I share, is three-fold: the cumulative effect of small, individual acts was causing crisis; there was actually an abundance of resources preceding the coming of the flood; and this was a slow-moving destruction.

When I look at my kids, who just turned eight, I pray that they will have a world to grow into that is habitable and sustainable. One of the great challenges we face today, in our modern, uber-technological world, is that of instant gratification vs. the long view of history. Many of us want what we want right now, and if it is possible, then why shouldn't we be able to have it? With this mindset, we often are not present to the idea that what we do today can and does affect what will be ten, twenty, a hundred years from now. The generation of "whatever" is doing great harm to the future of our existence. Think about littering, as an example. It was often said, "Oh, it is just one gum wrapper on the ground, whatever." The answer we parents give is often, "Imagine if everyone in the world threw their gum wrappers on the ground, then what?"

This mentality must apply to the bigger issues facing us, in addition to applying to the everyday issues of litter, recycling, turning off lights, inflating our tires, changing our bulbs, adjusting our thermostats, and all of the other ways we, as individuals, can make a difference in our world. We need to apply this mentality to oil, food, construction, transportation and energy development in general. In addition to grand visioning, we need some "small mind approach" to the big challenges we face. Otherwise, we can get overwhelmed and think nothing can be done. Mental fatigue is not an option. I need to hear it, you need to hear it, our world needs to hear it. Those who choose to say that we are not affecting the planet by our actions are shirking their responsibility as humans created in the image of God. If we believe that we are created b'tzelem elohim, in God's image, then why don't we think that we have the power to create and destroy? In this Torah portion, God promises Noah and the animals that God will never again destroy the planet because of us. But we didn't make the same promise. If we are to survive, it is time we make it.

I am grateful that the Jewish community is taking a leading role in addressing the issues of climate change and pushing us to talk about this, especially in advance of the upcoming world meeting in Copenhagen. Hazon and other major Jewish institutions put out the call for this Sabbath, and they have organized a campaign called "The Jewish Climate Change Campaign." I urge you to visit their website and sign the pledge. Together, with our small actions, we can make a difference for the good, inverting the small, greedy acts of our ancestors who brought on the flood. Together, by recognizing the abundance of resources we have and working to redistribute them in a fair and equitable way, urging our leaders to work on the global level as we organize on the individual and local level, we can make a difference for the good, not mimicking the generation of the flood and their petty, selfish ways. And, by listening to the voices of Noah today, those of Hazon, American Jewish World Service, The Shalom Center and the myriad other groups and leaders like Al Gore, calling us to teshuvah and a change of behavior, we may just be able to avert another great disaster. God brought the destruction in the story of Noah; we are bringing the destruction in the story of today. May we heed the call of the wise, save ourselves, our planet, our future and give our children an inhabitable world. And, if that doesn't start working, maybe someone should round up the elephants and pigeons and send them in!