Torah portion: Do I have your attention?
It was a heart-stopping photo that flashed through social media and around the world last month: A toddler, Alan Kurdi, face down, dead upon the Turkish shore, the Syrian refugee’s sturdy toddler shoes pointing downward as the shallow waves caressed his still face.
Death by water? For the many Syrian families attempting to flee the violence of war in the Middle East, the epochal flood had already begun.
In a world awash in violence, we cried out in anguish for this senseless loss. Where is the rainbow set in the clouds to remind us of our responsibility to God, to ourselves and to each other? Are we yet another “Dor Hamabul,” a Generation of the Flood, destined to face extinction because we refuse to read the signs set before us?
During the last El Nino season, I remember looking up at the sky on Day 33 of constant rain and thinking: “Wow! Maybe this is it, and I have missed the boat.” But the rain stopped, and it took another seven years for me to acknowledge both the fragility of our existence and the damage inflicted by this current “antediluvian” generation.
In the last seven years, we have seen a cycle of climate extremes — a record drought in the South and West, 100-year hurricanes on the East Coast and the hottest season on record around the globe. “What,” God appears to be asking, “do I have to do to get your attention?”
Today’s headlines seem to be ripped directly from the biblical text: “And the earth became corrupt before God; the earth was filled with lawless violence — v’timaleh haaretz hamas” (Genesis 6:11). The midrash aptly sums up the corrupting nature of hamas as “a violence which is capable of demoralizing all that is good in human nature, and acts as an inexorable barrier between humanity and its Creator.”
We are bombarded with images of hamas — lawless violence — daily. On Oct. 1, there was a mass shooting in Oregon; by the time this article is in print, another mass murder will have grabbed the headlines.
More than 200,000 people have been slaughtered in Syria over the past four years, and the majority of its remaining citizens are doing everything they can to get out. Their bodies float by yachts in the Mediterranean, reminiscent of those who must have floated by Noah as humankind was destroyed by the Flood.
From the beginning, God admits that creation, supposedly made in His image, is essentially flawed: “The Lord saw how great was man’s wickedness on the earth, and how every plan devised by his mind was nothing but evil all the time. And the Lord regretted that He had made man on earth, and his heart was saddened. The Lord said, ‘I will blot out from the earth the men whom I created … But Noah found favor with the Lord … Noah was a righteous man; he was blameless in his age; Noah walked with God” (Genesis 6:5-9).
For centuries, the sages have been puzzled by Noah’s behavior as a “righteous man, blameless in his age.” Clearly, he did not reach out to others, urging their repentance before the deluge rained from the sky. Was he only blameless by comparison, in an age that was corrupt beyond redemption?
Often, Noah is compared unfavorably to Abraham, the first Jew, who famously argues with God over the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah as lawless violence returns. “Will you also destroy the righteous with the wicked?” Abraham cries. “What if there are 50 righteous in the city? … Shall not the Judge of all the earth do justice?” (Genesis 18:23-5).
According to Midrash Tanhuma, however, we see that God intended to use the example of Noah to provide a warning to others. Noah is told to plant cedar trees, which take 120 years to mature. God hoped that within that time frame, Noah would be able to alert the world of coming disaster and that humanity would mend its ways.
Rashi points out that they were given a last chance to repent with the words: “The waters of the Flood came upon the earth” (Genesis 7:10). The idea was that, in the event of their repenting, the rain would be one of blessing. When they did not repent, Rashi says, the rain became a deluge.
One cannot help but think of those who today deny climate change, or the global effect of excessive dependence on fossil fuels. For the first time, humanity now has the power to destroy all of Earth. Will we look up at the skies on Day 34 of this year’s predicted El Nino and realize that the rain has become a deluge, and that we have missed the boat?
When the rains cease in the Bible, God sets a bow in the sky to remind Himself and humanity of a new covenant: “I have set My bow in the cloud, and it shall be a token for a covenant between me and the earth … The waters will never again become a flood to destroy all flesh” (Genesis 9:13-15).
So God has made a promise and given us a sign in the skies. But the rainbow arc hanging above us is only half of a circle. As human beings with free will, we must make the choices to prevent Earth’s destruction. Through our actions, we must complete the circle and seal the covenant with our actions.
The signs are there. If only we will pay attention.
Rabbi Judith HaLevy is the rabbi of the Malibu Jewish Center & Synagogue and a past president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California.