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Torah Commentary
Noach (November 5, 2016)

Bettijane Eisenpreis

Then Noah built an altar to the Lord and, taking of every clean animal and of every clean bird, he offered burnt offering on the altar. The Lord smelled the pleasing odor and the Lord said to Himself: “Never again will I doom the earth because of man, since the devisings of man’s mind are evil from his youth, nor will I ever destroy every living being, as I have done.
(Genesis 8:20-21)

The story of Noah! What fun! Which song did you learn in grade school or sing on the bus during school trips? Was it “The animals came in two by two, One more river to cross,” or “The Lord said to Noah, There’s going to be a floody, floody; Get your children out of the muddy, muddy,” or a different set of rhymes?

We all know the story. Noah is “a righteous man in his time,” so when God decides to destroy the world because its people are evil, he spares Noah and his family and gives them the task of saving two of each kind of animal on earth. These are to be male and female, so that they can reproduce and repopulate the world later. It’s a great adventure story — no problem.

Or is it so simple? Noah is only “blameless in his age,” which some commentators take to mean that everyone else was so bad that Noah was good in comparison. But was every single human evil? What about the newborn babies? And why were plants and animals destroyed as well? The story poses a lot of questions, and it must have disturbed the writers of the Bible, because they ended the story with God’s promise not to destroy the earth again because of man’s evil ways.

The Bible does not say that the earth will not be destroyed again — only that God will not destroy it. And here’s where we — all of us alive on earth — have to sit up and take notice. We only have to watch the daily news, and especially the weather report, to realize what we are doing to the planet.

The year 2015 was the hottest year on record. We’ve all read the stories about the shrinking Arctic ice caps, the death of barrier reefs, the fact that species of birds and animals are going extinct. It looks as if God has left us to destroy ourselves...and we are doing a pretty good job.

When I was in grade school, we were taught that the oceans were so large they never could be polluted. But they could, and they are. That’s why the reefs are dying. And while we in New York City are enduring one of the worst droughts in years, other parts of the country are drowning under floods.

There is a somewhat silver lining to this dark cloud: The next generation is taking climate change much more seriously. I have spoken to friends with young and teenage children, and they all have projects that involve identifying some of the problems and doing something about them. And so are the grown-ups, at least some of them.

My college assigns colors to classes, and mine was green. When our 50th reunion rolled around, we decided to start a “green fund” at college. As part of the effort, we ordered handsome refillable water bottles and arranged to have them delivered to the dormitory where we would be staying. The students assigned to our dormitory duly put one bottle in each of our kits, and then ordered cases and cases of bottled water for us to use. Oh, dear! But there is a happy ending to the story: When we arrived for our 55th reunion, we each received a new water bottle with a list of the fountains in the dormitory where we could fill the bottles. Not every seed we plant will take root, but some do.

Despite improvements, our problems are far from solved. For example, I just bought a new computer, and I also had to get a new printer because my old printer isn't compatible with my new computer. Although my old printer works perfectly, it would have been doomed to the junk pile if I had not just found out that the Lower East Side Ecology Center recycles old electronics.

On an international level, there needs to be a great deal more cooperation. Developing countries cannot afford the more environmentally friendly but expensive practices that produce needed goods and services while protecting the environment. And developed countries, like ours, need to do much better. But in case you think that Noah is just a fairy tale, think again. From the very beginning, man struggled to live in his environment, and the Bible is highlighting a problem that continues to this day. Truly, everything is in the Bible. We just have to know where to look.

Bettijane Eisenpreis, a freelance writer, is a long-time member of Temple Emanu-El
and a regular participant in our Saturday morning Torah study group.

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