History, like the weekly Torah readings, repeats itself. This much we know. Humans have been impacting the Earth since the first humans became a part of the ecosystem. However, modern society is resisting the unavoidable truth that we have severely damaged that ecosystem that sustains us. In our daily lives, the small decisions we make seem insignificant, but in fact support supply chains and institutions that make us complicit in resource-exhaustion, carbon overloading, ocean acidification and pollution, and so much more. The signs are clear. The science is proven. And we Jews have been getting annual reminders in synagogue that this has happened before.
As we begin to read Parshat Noah this week, we are hit over the head with the notion that human actions corrupt the Earth. In three verses (Genesis 6:11-13) explaining the evil that humans have done, the Bible uses the term “Earth” six times, with the refrain that “Earth has been corrupted”. It would have been easy for the Bible to have said that the people were corrupt. Certainly, the Bible has plenty of terminology for making that point, but it does not do so in this story.
In this destruction and creation story, the acts of humans are closely tied to the condition of nature. When God chooses to act, He does not cause a plague or cause warfare, as He does in other Bible chapters, but rather the Earth itself has its revenge on humans. This is consistent with the rabbinic concept of “mida keneged mida”, punishment appropriate to the cause. The people of Noah’s generation are in a state of denial. How could their actions be having any impact on the massive, bountiful Earth that they rely on for life? Noah builds the ark over decades in plain view but no one seriously wonders why an ark is needed or takes any action to change the situation. In the meantime, the Earth becomes more and more corrupted, but the people continue on their ways, choosing to remain ignorant.
After the destruction of the flood, fast forward to the next creation story in the parsha of the Tower of Babel. In just four verses, the Bible sums up the situation. In this often misread story, it is commonly missed that the “nations” were previously “separated in many lands each according to their languages, families/clans”. (Genesis 10:5). Somehow a tyrant, the midrash points to Nimrod, (Genesis Rabbah 37:2) coerces the people into living in one place, forces them to speak one language, and creates a global, homogenous culture. Moved to Shinar to live together, the people find that they are without the types of stones that had formerly been used to make houses. So they come up with a new set of materials, bricks and mortar (Genesis 11:2). These are great new “synthetic” materials and the people use them first to build houses and a city. Only afterward, when they have made themselves comfortable and sheltered, do they start building a tower. The people lose sight of using these newly invented bricks and mortar for good in creating useful structures but rather get carried away with the materials themselves and use them in a wholly wasteful way, building a tower to nowhere for no real reason.
When plastics were created they too served a useful role and they continue to do so in many lifesaving ways from child seats to medical instruments, including the plastic straw, which was initially adopted in hospitals to allow patients to drink lying down. But like the people of Shinar we have gotten carried away and are creating too many single use plastics, in increasingly useless and wasteful designs. We are building a tower that will literally collapse of its own weight and create its own chaos. We built this synthetic tower.
All of these conundrums are cleared up by a verse in another destruction story in the book of Deuteronomy, namely in verse 20:19, “ Is man like the tree of the field being able to move before a siege?.” The commentators argue over what this verse means. We would like to put this debate in different terms. On the one hand, humans are as rooted as trees into the ground. We are entirely dependent on the sustenance from the earth. Those are the deepest roots possible. On the other hand, we humans have an advantage over trees, as we can indeed move before the siege. We can change our fate by taking action, unlike trees, who are adapting as fast as possible, but without mobility. We’ve seen Noah building an ark for decades; we have the power to stop corrupting the Earth. We don’t have to keep building a tower of plastic to the sky. There is no inevitability when it comes to us humans, because we have been blessed with the ability to change our fate. The Bible, and this weeks parsha in particular, teaches us that God is looking for partners in action. The parsha begins with Noah who partners with God and ends with Abraham who takes dramatic action to become God’s partner for a new and different type of creation, the Jewish People.
There are concrete actions we, as individuals, can take to change the trajectory of this age-old story. Eat more plant-based meals, swap single use plastics for reusables, support sustainable, long-lasting brands over fast-fashion, fly less often (and use a carbon offsetting tool when possible), and push for increased and expeditious government and municipal action. Let us take our inspiration from heroes like Noah and Abraham and in our small way partner with God to start our own creation and repair story for the Earth.
This article was co-authored by Ariel Shay and Scott A. Shay; Ariel is Scott's daughter. Ariel is a leader of Plastic Free Israel and Impact Manager of the Elah Fund, an Israeli social impact private equity fund.
Scott A. Shay is the author of In Good Faith: Questioning Religion and Atheism. Learn more here.
Originally posted on The Times of Israel here.