Shabbat Shalom. This week’s Torah portion is Parashat Noach, arguably the most well-known story of our Torah. It is one of the earliest Bible stories I ever learned, and most children, regardless of religious affiliation can at least tell you the information they learned from the song “Rise and Shine”. In it, we learn that water is destruction. God uses a flood to wipe out all of humanity because people have become too corrupt. Afterwards, God sends a rainbow as a promise that God will never again destroy the world. Similarly, in this week’s haftarah from Isaiah, God promises that once the Jewish people repent and are returned from Exile, God will never again punish the Jewish people. It’s all very well and good for God to promise to never again destroy the world or harm the Jewish people, but now it’s up to humanity to ensure we don’t destroy ourselves, starting with caring for our natural world.
According to Rabbi Eliezer, a great Rabbi from around the first or second century, this event happened exactly at this time of year in which we read the story, shortly after the festival of Shemini Atzeret and the beginning of the hopefully rainy season in Israel. Rashi, a much more recent rabbi from only about one thousand years ago, continues on in this fashion, saying that when God first sent the waters down, God hoped that the threat of the flood would have been enough to encourage the people to repent, and then the rains would be rains of blessing, need at this time of year to keep the earth in ecological balance. When the people continued to cause violence amongst themselves, the rains continued and turned from blessing to curse, from a life force that allows the earth to flourish to a great flood that destroyed everything. Because though water is the tool of death and destruction in this story, and certainly can still be to this day with hurricanes and tsunamis and the like, water is really a source of life. Without water, nothing grows, no one survives, and the earth withers and dies. Water is life.
In college I studied some of the violence that can live alongside water disputes. There are places in the world were water is scarce, and it becomes a resource worth fighting over, causing water wars which some sociologists and environmentalists I studied at the time believed would be the cause of the next global war. These places and conflicts were the bulk and main focus of my studies, but I also read up on cases where a water source was itself used as a weapon of colonialism and capitalism. I could name a handful of those situations from different countries on multiple continents in which governments approve big building projects that destroy indigenous communities and entire eco-systems. Sometimes they are municipal projects, like building a dam that will flood out an entire population of an indigenous tribe and annihilate the habitats of countless animals in order to create power for a city expanding beyond its capacity. Sometimes they are business projects that oil companies, real estate developers, and the like pay for and coerce politicians into approving, at the cost of the people who actually live in the area being sold off to big businesses that will come in and build and leave, with no regard to the aftermath of such devastation and displacement.
Of course, a current situation as well known as the Noah story, at least now while it’s in the public eye, is the dispute over the Dakota Access Pipeline. As you may know, a pipeline has been approved for an oil company based out of Texas to build through Native American land. There are many aspects to the situation that are deeply problematic, but the most looming and easily relatable one for all people regardless of geographic location or national identity is the issue of ecological damage and water pollution that the pipeline is sure to cause. With climate change reaching a peak that scientists are now saying is irreversible, the water crisis in Flint, Michigan still unaddressed, and clean energy initiatives coming along painstakingly slowly, do we as an entire human race really want to risk building a new pipeline for oil know the pollution that burning oil causes? Do we really want to raze ecosystems and develop new harmful structures on protected land? Do we really want to risk poisoning yet another water source and decimating yet another community? I just can’t see any way in which that honors the covenant with God represented in the rainbow of this week’s parasha. God has promised to never again destroy the earth with water. I’d suggest that promising to stop destroying each other’s water sources the least we can do to uphold our end of the bargain, to care better for all of God’s creation.
May we learn from the indigenous people of this country to protect our water and our earth, for water is life. I’d like to close by sharing a poem I found online by a Mohawk woman.Water,
the specific rhythm
of a poet
Close to grace
given to cumulus clouding of frenzy
Perhaps she is as subtle as a late night bloomer
A desert cacti
A winged bird of prey
Feeding on the smallest of creatures
Nesting in the hearts of men
She is of the earth
It can be said
It is the silk of sky she wears best
Riding the rainbows of the moon
The most delicate of hues washing her shadows
All the shades of white to marble her weightless flight
The whirlpool of her
High noon July Sky
A northern river
Wide and deep as frozen yesterday
Our Water is Life,
She paints the horizon
We set sail
The four winds gathering nations
backward the motion of time
a feast of all memory
essential and sublime
Blessed is all of God’s creation, the water and the earth and the rains. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.