A Covenant for the Earth

May 1, 2013
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Is global warming a revisiting of the conditions that led to the biblical flood? There are several interesting similarities between the flood of Noah’s generation and the warming in ours. First of all, there is the apocalyptic aspect — the end of life on earth as we know it. The Talmud tells us that Noah warned the people about the flood, but they chose both to ignore his warning and to interrupt construction of the ark. Similarly, today, denial is rampant — both among the skeptics (a minority) and among those who accept global warming as a fact. Among those who take the threat seriously, one would expect a more concerted effort to avoid the catastrophe. But the Kyoto Accords are breathing their last breath, and no other global treaty is set to replace them (after the failure of the Copenhagen Convention).1 At the same time, a small yet determined group of scientists has attempted to persuade decision makers and the public that while global warming is a reality, it is not related to human behavior and there is nothing we can do to stop it. This approach, which allows us to carry on polluting undisturbed, absolves humans from responsibility and removes the connection between the actions of the individual and the state of society.

God’s covenant with Noah apparently encourages skeptics: “And I will remember my covenant, which is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh, and the waters will no more become a flood to destroy all flesh.” (Genesis 9:15) God tells Noah that never again will there be a flood of such devastating proportions. God offers the rainbow in the cloud as a symbol (Genesis 9:13) of that covenant, and commits to refrain from altering the natural order again: “While the earth remains, seed time and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease.” (Genesis 8:22)

On the other hand, we learn: “On the whole world God does not bring [a flood], but on a single nation He does.” (BT Sotah 11a) But even if the entire planet is not covered by water, such a flood would still be severe and would result in global consequences (consider, for instance, the impact of tens of millions of refugees from those areas seeking food and shelter in other countries).

A Torah commentator of the fifteenth century, the Toldot Yitzchak, explains that in the above-mentioned verse, God promises that the cycles of nature will not change. But He also warns: “I still have means to settle things with you” (commenting on Genesis 8:22), which suggests that another flood on the scale of Noah’s days will not repeat itself, but punishments in the form of natural disasters will happen as a result of human sin. Indeed, the worst scenarios of global warming only mention that the areas to be covered are the low beach areas, such as Bangladesh and Scandinavia.

The connection between human sin and global disaster is further clarified in the Talmud: “Everything is in the hands of heaven, except frost and heat.” (BT Avoda Zara 3b) This means that all damages are due to divine decree (whether or not we recognize the reason), but frostbite and heat stroke are direct outcomes of human deeds. Reish Lakish continues: “There is no hell in the future, but the Lord takes the sun out of its case… The wicked ones are sentenced by it and the righteous ones are healed by it.”2  Rashi explains that the term “takes the sun out of its case” means: “to make the sun shine powerfully.” (BT Bava Metzia 86b)

Today, we know that even a relatively small change in the earth’s gentle equilibrium (such as changes in sub-ocean streams) can collapse a whole system. And any global disaster will implicate each and every one of us. This notion of a global covenant for the environment is based, paradoxically, on our innate free choice. As we face, for the second time in history, such a disaster, we must remember that each and every one of us is a partner to the creation of this problem and we are also partners to the solution.

In our generation, instead of a closer affinity with nature, we are seeing a startling alienation from it. Although most of us generally understand the impact of our carbon footprint, we ignore the almost self-evident connection between the corruption of our morals and the impending disaster. The selfish relationship we have developed with nature is nothing less than a direct outcome of the self-centered relationships we have developed among ourselves. Whether the warming is a new form of sentencing humanity or merely a natural phenomenon is not for me to decide. However, it is clear that our actions have consequences. Perhaps this is a lesson in modesty, a call to confront any delusion of grandeur. If all we learn from the current environmental crisis is how to run cars using water molecules rather than gasoline, our profits will turn out to be losses. Without rectifying the foundations and moral codes of our society and our covenant with God, the next catastrophe is only a matter of time.

1 The Kyoto Accords are formally the Kyoto Protocol to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change that took place in Kyoto in 1997. The Copenhagen Convention is the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change that took place in Copenhagen in 2009.

2 Rabbi Shimon, son of Lakish, is known as Reish Lakish, one of the greatest sages in the second generation of the Amorai’m.

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Aharon Ariel Lavi is founder and director of the Nettiot Mission-Driven Communities Network, which helps Haredi youth and ba’alei teshuvah to engage with Israeli society. He is also founder of Garin Shuva, a Jewish eco-driven community in the northwestern Negev. A doctoral student in Bar-Ilan University’s science, technology and society program, he has written extensively on Judaism, society, economics, and the environment. He lives with his wife and two children at Shuva.

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