Sermon Parshat Noach 5781
Congregation Beit Simcha, Tucson, Arizona, October 23, 2020
There’s an ancient joke about the end of the world.
An astronomer is giving a talk to a community group and he says that in 5 billion years the sun will expand and engulf the earth, ending life as we know it. At this a woman in the back leaps for her chair shouting “Oh my God! Oh my God!”, and then faints.
They revive her and the astronomer says, “Well, gee, I know that I said the world will end, but it’s a long way off. Don’t worry.”
And the woman says, “Well, what did you say?”
And the astronomer says, “I said the world will end in 5 billion years.”
And the woman says, “Oh! Thank God! I thought you said 5 million years.”
Or as poet Robert Frost put it:
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
People have been predicting the end of the world for a long time, and we still find it believable. Today, we see the reality of global warming threatening the very existence of human life on our planet. But this warning may not be taken as seriously as it should be, because we have been playing with the idea of total destruction on a constant basis for many, many years. Just eight years ago everyone was exercised about the end of the Mayan calendar, which would spell finis to our planet; before that there was the Y2K debacle, in which our technology would finish us off in a massive computer meltdown that never occurred. And so on. Regularly people predict the end of the world as we know it, and we go on feeling fine. Or at least, we did until the COVID-19 pandemic changed our lives so dramatically in the past seven months. And as bad as it seems now, and as dangerous as it remains, I suspect that it won’t prove to be the end of the world just yet.
In the grand scheme of things, we have been creatively thinking about the end of the world for a very long time before Coronavirus terrified us. Why? Because, you see, there is something strangely compelling about disaster epics. As a society we are repeatedly drawn to them, especially on film, as several times each year a new end-of-days scenario is played out in HD with full theater audio. In recent years we’ve had a series of very popular apocalyptic epics, ranging from the Hunger Games movies to remakes of the Mad Max, Independence Day and Godzilla and RoboCop and Terminator films, with many other movies and TV shows—like, say, Stranger Things—based on variations of this premise. It doesn’t take long to recall huge hit films and TV series about the apocalypse, alphabetically from Alien to Zombie Invasion, with the Matrix series smack in the middle.
Apparently, we thrill to see the world as we know it destroyed by alien invasion, or meteors from space, or infectious disease pandemics—now there’s an improbable scenario, right?—or volcanic eruptions, or tidal waves, or insect invasions, or foreign armies, or nuclear holocaust, or zombies, or cyborgs, or apes. We have even paid good money to enjoy smaller-scale disaster movies that feature individual planes, ships, buildings, or groups facing cataclysmic destruction through tsunamis, fires, criminals, sharks and terrorists.
And we are very curious about what happens after the end of the world, too. There is a great, enduring market for this format in works of fiction. Just about the most popular form of teen literature today is the dystopic novel, in which a post-apocalyptic world is imagined with weird and horrible elements throughout. The Hunger Games and Divergent films exist in an unbroken chain of dystopian, imagined earths in which humanity (or at least America) is overthrown by a disastrous chain of events that lead to a new, less-than-wonderful world.
It is safe to say that decades from now filmmakers and show-runners—or whatever media will have replaced film and streaming TV by then—will be pitching post-apocalyptic plots to producers and money people in the hopes of creating the next great disaster epic, or (better yet!) disaster franchise. I expect that the day after the actual apocalypse someone will want to make a disaster epic that rewrites and reshoots the end-of-days scenario that has just occurred…
In truth, we have been interested in this form of fiction for quite a long time. The first of these stories appeared rather a while back. It’s in this week’s Torah portion of Noah, the tale of the deluge, the flood that God ordained to wash away the violence, cruelty, and evil of the first group of humans on this earth, the second Torah portion in our ancient sacred text, one of the oldest sections in our great literary heritage. Interestingly, the flood story itself is very likely a remake of an even older disaster story borrowed from the Sumerians who were the first people to create civilization. It is called the Epic of Gilgamesh, and it is a story of the destruction of the known world by flood. Sound familiar? In other words, the first civilized people on earth in all of history also imagined the first total destruction of their own civilization.
What is there about human beings in all ages and eras that drives us to imagine the destruction of the only world we know? And why, in each of these apocalyptic, post-apocalyptic, and dystopian scenarios does it always turn out that the results are as bad, or even worse, than the original, flawed civilization that preceded the disaster?
To answer these questions, we must turn to the Noah narrative itself. But first, we need to understand the foreshadowing that is so typical of the way the Torah is constructed. In the previous Torah portion of Breisheet we are informed that the first child born on earth, Cain, slew the second child born on earth, Abel, in a fit of jealousy. And the aftermath of that unfortunate bit of sibling rivalry was that Cain was forced to wander the earth, which eventually led to him inventing that great center of human work and creativity, the city. The word civilization is taken from the word for city, and so civilization itself was the invention of the world’s first murderer.
In the Torah, in general, cities are fleshpots of bad hospitality, rottenness, inhumanity, and general evil. Until Jerusalem becomes the capital in King David’s time, most of the Biblical stories that are set in cities reflect the attraction of city-dwellers to sins of various kinds, and the need to cleanse them of their iniquity. God often has to warn us that civilization and its discontents must be transformed, or God will need to destroy the whole mess. From the first skyscraper, the ill-fated Tower of Babel in this week’s portion, to the annihilation of Sodom and Gomorrah in a couple of weeks, to the fall of the walls of Jericho in the time of Joshua, most of man’s work is aimed at creating a society filled with injustice and immorality, and usually it gets destroyed by some divine edict or action. And the Torah, and the prophets later, spends a fair amount of time reminding us of the corruption inherent in most of our efforts.
But even beyond our human tendency to create deeply flawed societies and civilizations, there is a sense that there is something about human beings that moves us, far too often, to choose the wrong course. While we may not be inherently either good or evil, we are morally weak, and given the choice we will more often choose breaking bad over going good. That is, we each individually, and all of us collectively, have the capacity to follow either the ethical course in life, or to follow the unethical one. It is up to us to choose—but given our proclivities, we seem to go the wrong way most of the time.
That’s the message here in Noah. Given a world that provides for our needs with a moderate amount of work, we nonetheless find ways to make that world, through our efforts at “civilization”, unequal, unfair, and eventually profoundly corrupt. Allowed to choose freely between living cooperatively and well or living selfishly, we usually plop down on the selfish side of things, leading to really bad consequences that we cannot envision.
In this week’s portion Noah is righteous in his generation, does everything God commands, and saves his family and all humanity from total annihilation. And then he, and they, restart life on the planet, and shortly thereafter things start to go south again, and it all winds down towards corruption and savagery once more.
Only this time God can’t destroy it all and just begin again. This time God needs to find a different way to deal with these independent beings, these creatures created in God’s own image who have free will.
And so, a new start will eventually be made, but this time it will follow a different path. This time only some of the members of the human race will be asked to take a higher road, to freely choose to become moral and follow the path of ethics, purpose and holiness.
That story won’t begin until next week, in Lech Lecha—when Abram and Sarah chart a new course for a particular people, our ancestors, the children of Israel, the Jews. Still, the meaning is implied already. Human beings are neither good nor bad, but given the complexity of our circumstances, we need more than our innate natures to choose a good course in life, individually and collectively. That means that the covenant created in Noah, and more importantly, the covenant created with Abraham and broadened greatly with Moses at Sinai, is necessary for the continued existence of a community that can advance the causes of goodness, holiness, and purpose on this unflooded planet.
In truth, as much as we love all the disaster epics the original Noah story has spawned, they are incomplete imitations of the original story of Noach, the original Ancient Mariner.
You know how in disaster movies there are always one or two heroic individuals who see the end coming but aren’t believed? How they try to get the world, or the government, or anyone to recognize the threat but nobody listens? How in the end they—and usually a similarly minded, really good-looking compatriot of the opposite sex—somehow manage to defeat the system, or expose the fraud, or cure the disease, or clobber the aliens nearly single-handedly?
Well that’s the part that doesn’t quite fit with the story of Noah. Because in Noah, there is a crucial denouement, a true aftermath that changes the conclusion into something more than an opportunity to cheer a hero and heroine and head for the exit.
In the story of Noah after the flood, after the rainbow connection is made, after the covenant and the re-commencement of life on earth, Noah proves to be fallible and human, and he, too, fails. And yet humanity continues, and God manages to maneuver things to a better place in spite of human weakness.
The conclusion to the epic of Noah is the realization that God has a higher plan, and whether we are heroes or not, when we fail there can be nonetheless be a good result. In each generation that positive takes the form of a renewed covenant with God, a new berit, and the advancement, in spite of ourselves, of holiness, purpose, and ethics.
May we find our own version of this covenant in this generation—without the need for many more disaster epics, or, God forbid, another apocalypse. Ken yehi ratson.