Whenever people saw Noah occupying himself with the building of the ark—which took 120 years—they would ask: “Why are you building this boat?” Noah would respond: “Because God is going to bring a flood upon the earth [unless you change your harmful ways].”
The people would respond: “What sort of flood? If God sends a flood of fire, we know how to protect ourselves. If it is a flood of waters, then if the waters bubble up from the earth, we will cover them with iron rods, and if they descend from above, we know a remedy against that, too.”
-Midrash Genesis Rabbah
Sometimes, to our detriment—or even our doom—we ignore what should be obvious warning signs. In the midrash on this week’s Torah portion, Noach, Noah trys to warn his contemporaries about the coming deluge. He builds the ark publicly, over a very long period of time, so that others might observe him and inquire about his efforts. This works—they ask—but their response to his explanation is not what he expects. When he tells them that God is preparing to wipe them out unless they repent, they insist they can thwart the floodwaters. Instead of changing their behavior, they double down on it. This deadly combination of arrogance and denial becomes the downfall of dor ha-mabul, the generation of the deluge. Only Noah and his family will survive.
Alas, it seems we have not yet taken to heart the lesson of this Torah tale. In the face of insurmountable scientific evidence of catastrophic climate change, our response so far looks stunningly similar to that of Noah’s contemporaries. We deny the problem or arrogantly insist that we can use technology to overcome it. Instead of examining and altering our misguided behavior at the root of the crisis, we either deny its existence or brazenly proclaim our faith in fanciful technological solutions.
Rabbi Lawrence Kushner taught: Torah is not true because it actually happened, historically, as recorded; it is true in a deeper and more important sense—because it happens, in real time, to us. The stories of Genesis—including Noah—have much to teach us, if we are willing to hear and contemplate the lessons they offer. We need not repeat the errors of the flood generation—but time is running short, for us, as it did for them. The hour is late, but disaster can still be averted if we summon the will.
God tells Noah, “Aseh l’chah tevah.” This is usually translated, in Torah, as “Make an ark for yourself.” But the midrash reads it as simultaneously more literal and more metaphoric: “Make yourself an ark.” By this interpretation, the Holy One is reminding us that each one of us can be a source of sanctuary and liberation. May we speak—and act—on behalf of our little corner of the earth in this new year.