Rabbi Margaret Jacobi- 21st October 2020
The story of Noah is a complicated one. It is complicated in the details of the story, which are often contradictory, such as the number of pairs of animals that were chosen to go into the ark. These contradictions are one of the things which have led biblical scholars to think that the story is composite, put together from different sources. But more importantly, it is a complicated story morally. It begins by telling us that the earth behaved corruptly and was full of violence. And when God saw this, God decided to put an end to all living things on the earth with the exception for one family – the family of Noah – and the animals Noah took into the ark. What does the story mean by ‘the earth was corrupt’? Was it all living things, not just human, who were somehow corrupt, or even something about the earth it-self? Yet even in the creation story it is clear that of all living things, only human beings have the ability to know the difference between good and evil and to make moral choices. If so, why should all living creatures be destroyed?
We are not alone in asking. The rabbis of the Talmud wrestled with these questions too. But in their attempt to find an answer, they also found a different aspect to the story. For the story is not just about destruction. God did not wipe all of creation off the face of the earth. Instead, not only Noah and his family but every kind of animal was saved. It was im-portant to preserve one of every single species, so that no aspect of creation should be per-manently lost. Not only this, but Noah had to make sure that there was enough food for them all. A vivid story in the Talmud tells of how Abraham’s servant Eliezer met Noah’s son Shem after the flood and asked him how they managed to feed all the animals. Shem tells him that they didn’t get a wink of sleep the whole time they were in the ark. They didn’t know what all the animals needed to eat . They only discovered what chameleons ate when some maggots grew in a pile of grain and the chameleon at them.
The story becomes not just about destruction but about saving and caring. Noah and his sons learnt what it meant to look after every creature according to its needs. It is almost as if, having failed to protest when God told him there would be a flood, Noah learnt the hard way that every creature mattered. The ark becomes a symbol of safety and refuge. Yes, there was wickedness and God felt that it should be destroyed, but that did not mean that God did not regret the suffering and take pity.
In recent months we have also learnt anew the importance of caring. We have realised that millions of people who have gone unnoticed for so long care for others and that society could not function without them. We have also learnt the importance of caring for our plan-et. Just as Noah learnt that every species mattered, so we have become aware of the delicate web of creation, which is threatened by the destruction of a single species. We know that species are becoming extinct at an alarming rate and urgent action is needed.
The pandemic has forced us to re-examine our priorities as a society. We realise that it not acceptable to exploit either people or resources. We have to value and care for each other. May those lessons, which Noah learnt the hard way in the ark, remain with us and influence us so that although the future is uncertain we can shape it for good.
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