Countering Destruction: Lessons from Noah

Today, perhaps the greatest risk of humans destroying the world comes not from those with the intent to do so but rather from the collective, unintentional actions of billions of people.

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Although the flood and the life of Noah occurred thousands of years ago, the story of Noah offers important lessons about how our actions affect the world. The Torah teaches that ten generations after Creation, all life on the planet had “corrupted its way on the earth” (Genesis 6:12). God gave humans 120 years to improve their ways, using Noah and his ark as messengers. Yet the people ignored the message and missed the boat. Noah built the ark, brought the animals into it, and lived on it with his family for the duration of the flood. After Noah left the ark, God made a covenant with Noah, designating the rainbow as the sign of the Creator’s commitment not to destroy the world.

What provoked God to carry out the most serious environmental catastrophe in human history and wipe away virtually all terrestrial creatures? The Rabbis of the Talmud teach that the judgment was sealed because of the sin of robbery (chamas). Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch teaches that “Chamas [wrongdoing] is a wrong that is too petty to be caught by human justice, but if committed continuously can gradually ruin your fellow man.” Apparently, people in Noah’s generation went to the market and stole a peanut here, a raisin there. With no one being tried for stealing miniscule amounts, store owners suffer significant losses and may have to shut down. No one desires or intends to cause such an outcome. It occurs due to the small-scale misconduct of many individuals put together. In response to this human wickedness, the Master of the World intentionally destroyed almost all terrestrial life by flooding the earth.

Today, perhaps the greatest risk of humans destroying the world comes not from those with the intent to do so but rather from the collective, unintentional actions of billions of people. Seemingly inconsequential actions are having a dramatic effect. We are little by little compromising the ecological balance on which we and future generations will depend for our survival. For the first time in human history, we now have the ability to destroy or radically alter all terrestrial life. 

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Rabbi Yonatan Neril founded and directs Jewish Eco Seminars, which engages and educates the Jewish community with Jewish environmental wisdom. He has worked with Canfei Nesharim for the past six years in developing educational resources relating to Judaism and the environment.

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