Today, the world is flooding. Massive inequality of status and wealth, climate endangerment, and bloody conflicts place the souls of all of God’s creatures at risk. Will we follow Noah’s example to work to reverse the trends of abuse and neglect and strive to show mercy and compassion to every creature? Jews are called upon to be a compassionate nation. Indeed, the rabbis consider mercy and compassion to be essential characteristics to being Jewish (Beitzah 32b). By fulfilling the Torah mandate of choosing love over hate, goodness over callousness, we can reinvest in our core humanity.
Noah, his family, and each of the animal species that were under the protection of the Ark were saved. Will we be chosen to survive the next flood that emerges?
It seems Noah could not have imagined a world without each animal existing in it. The Midrash teaches that Noah not only heroically saved two from every species by bringing them onto the Ark, but also that on the ark itself, he was tirelessly running from one to the next to give them proper treatment and care. Reading the story of the flood each year should remind us that when we endeavor for a more redeemed world, we must prioritize care towards the most vulnerable beings on our planet. We have to foster a society that rewards sustainable and responsible producer and consumer activities while penalizing wanton destruction of the precious resources our planet provides.
Jewish prayer services are modeled to remind us of nature and our connection to it. As is says in the Talmud:
From where do we derive that we pray three times a day? R. Shemuel b. Nahmani said it corresponds to the three times that nature changes over creation.
In the morning, a person should say, “I thank You, O Lord, my God and God of my fathers, for having delivered me from darkness to light.”
In the afternoon service, a person should say, “I thank You, O Lord, my God and God of my fathers, for just as I merited to see the sun in the east, so too have I merited to see the sun in the west.”
In the evening, a person should say, “May it be Your will, O Lord, my God and God of my fathers, that just as in the past You have delivered me from darkness to light, so may You deliver I me now from darkness to light” (Jerusalem Talmud, Berakhot 4: I).
Each time of prayer serves as a reminder of how interwoven our existence is with our environment. A change in our external state calls for a change of our internal state.
Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik famously distinguished between fate (goral) and destiny (ye’ud). Fate, the Rav taught, referred to the aspects of life that human beings are not able to control. Destiny, on the other hand, “[I]s an active existence in which one confronts the environment into which he is cast with an understanding of this uniqueness and value, freedom and capacity.” According to the Rav, “One’s mission in this world is to turn fate into destiny, an existence that is passive and influenced to an existence that is active and influential.” (Kol Dodi Dofek: Listen, 5-6).
Furthermore, Reb Simcha Bunim of Peshischa famously taught that one should carry a note in each of his pockets. One would read “I am but dust and ashes” while the other read, “The world was created for me” (Genesis 18:27; Sanhedrin 4:5). We should remember that we are humble guests of this universe, not it’s owners. But that doesn’t mean we should shun our duties to act as agents of powerful change, with the ability to take serious action to consequential effect.
It is all too easy to get caught up in conformist consumer behaviors. But as the Daoist sage Lao Tzu taught: “Care about what other people think and you will always be their prisoner.” We have to take the initiative to break free—spiritually—of public judgment. To be cutting-edge in this regard means transcending conventional consumer norms and looking beyond the immediate pleasure response. We have a shared fate, as Jews, as humans. But we dare not reside too long in the past. We must have the strength to take responsibility for our destiny together. We have to quell the flood. Each of us is called upon to exercise our unique leadership. Like Noah, this is our sacred responsibility.