Why we can’t be like Noah on the environment

Why we can’t be like Noah on the environment

This year the message of the story of Noah is especially powerful and urgent. On Nov. 2, we will join representatives of the world’s religions at a conference at Windsor Castle hosted by the Secretary-General of the United Nations and Prince Phillip, the Duke of Edinburgh. The question on the agenda is: how will each of the world’s religions play a serious role in challenging climate change?

The Jewish contribution, developed by many key thinkers in the U.S., Israel, and the United Kingdom, and with the support of most of the leading Jewish environmental organizations in all three countries, is the Jewish Climate Change Campaign, which goes live this week at www.jewishclimatecampaign.org. In the short-term, we hope 600,000 Jews will sign the on-line pledge, which calls for serious change in our institutions and governments. Signing the pledge and sending it to others is a powerful statement from within the Jewish community that the time has come to integrate environmental education, action, and advocacy into all we do.

But signing the pledge is just a beginning. What we are most interested in is longer-term change. The goal of the campaign is that each Jewish institution establishes a proactive and effective “green team.” Every synagogue, day school, camp, Hillel, (and every Jewish newspaper) should have a team to do two things: first, to establish a vision, and specific goals for September 2015, the end of the next shmita (sabbatical) year in Jewish life. The team should look at the impact of the organization on the environment through consumables, heat, energy, travel, and education and figure out how to live up to the best standards. Then, to immediately pick one thing to get started: an energy audit, the switch to green cleaning, weekly green tips … whatever it takes to begin the work.

People see Noah as a good guy: the man who builds the ark and saves his family and all the animals, two by two. On the face of it, Noah is a hero. Yet the Jewish people are not known as b’nei Noach, the children of Noah, but rather as b’nei Avraham, the children of Abraham. Why is this?

The explanation lies in the curious phrase, “Noach, Noach, ish tzadik…b’dorotav” — “Noah, Noah, a righteous man…in his generation.” Rabbinic commentary asked, was Noah a righteous man in absolute terms or was he merely relatively righteous. Righteous in an awful generation, but not so righteous by other standards?

We understand the difference in character and behavior when we contrast Noah and Abraham. When God told Noah that the earth is to be destroyed, Noah does not say a word. In the face of destruction, he simply builds an ark and saves his own family — and nobody else. Not once does Noah argue with God to save another person’s life.

Whereas Abraham, when confronted with the proposed destruction of just two cities, Sodom and Gomorrah, argues fiercely with God for their lives. We are b’nei Avraham and not b’nei Noach because, throughout history, we have not accepted potential destruction; we have done all in our power to prevent it.

The word “Noach” means comfortable and it reveals most clearly the character of Noah. For the rabbis, Noah was an equivocal hero, if he was a hero at all, because he was too comfortable.

The Duke of Edinburgh founded an ark more than a decade ago called The Alliance of Religions and Conservation, known by its acronym ARC. Unlike Noah, ARC is a project about challenging the ways in which we are comfortable. Human behaviors threaten crops, microclimates, and ecosystems. We need to think about the future of the world’s animals, but even more so, we need to think about the future of the world’s people.

Today no Sanhedrin compels the Jewish people to do or not do anything: each of us makes the choice to move forward comfortably, like Noah, or, as Abraham, to challenge ourselves and those around us to make a difference.

For more information and to sign the pledge, go to www.jewishclimatecampaign.org.

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