Parashat Noah

A Paradigm for Environmental Consciousness

Noah innovated a lifestyle of environmental awareness and action.

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Hands-On Dirty Work

Protecting God's world requires hard, sometimes unpleasant work. Noah didn't just load up the ark and sail worry-free--he worked without rest during the entire year of the Flood. For example, according to the Midrash Tanhuma, "throughout those twelve months, Noah and his sons did not sleep, because they had to feed the animals, beasts, and birds."

But feeding thousands of animals was the cushy job. As the Talmud (Sanhedrin 108b) explains, the ark had three levels, one for Noah and his family, one for the animals, and one for the waste--tons upon tons of animal droppings. The rabbinic sources debate the layout of the ark and the design of Noah's waste-management system, but one thing remains clear--Noah's family spent a lot of their time shoveling manure.

Whether they systematically removed it from the ark, stored it in a designated waste facility, or found practical use for it, we see that Noah toiled to maintain the cleanliness of the ark. While such work is not always enjoyable, Noah's lesson is that the benefits of a clean, healthy living space over a filthy, foul-smelling environment are certainly worth the effort. 

We All Share the Same Lifeboat (or Ark)

Another lesson we can learn from Noah is that it helps to see the world as a closed, integrated system. Noah and his eight-person crew maintained a sort of proto-BioDome inside the ark, struggling to preserve a functional level of ecological balance in the most challenging of situations.

Within such a system, every action has a significant impact and ramification, and individual elements can be aligned so as to strengthen and assist one another. For example, in our contemporary world composting food waste reduces landfill volume and then creates rich soil for home-grown, organic vegetables. Using public transportation in congested areas reduces pollution while cutting down on frustrating traffic. Less traffic, cleaner air, and time to relax on the bus or train all contribute to less personal stress. Riding a bicycle to work does all these while significantly improving health.  

Partnership with the Land

Noah's construction of a giant, floating ecosystem was proof enough of his excellence as an environmental innovator. After the Flood, he reinvented himself again as an agricultural pioneer.

At his birth, Noah's father predicted that Noah would relieve mankind from the curse on the land that came with Adam and Eve's expulsion (Genesis 3:17-19, 5:29). According to Genesis 9:20, "Noah began to be a man of the soil" after he left the ark. The Midrash explains that Noah revolutionized farming techniques to soften the backbreaking toil that had been the way of the land since the Fall.

Noah may have used the massive stores of dung on the ark to compost and revitalize the land, which had lost its top 12 inches of topsoil in the Flood. By thus easing the burdens of man and the soil, he truly earned his name,"rest." Overall, Noah's relationship with the land was harmonious and productive, not adversarial or injurious to the planet or to his own well-being.

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Shimshon Stuart Siegel is studying for rabbinic ordination at the Bat Ayin Yeshiva in the Judean Hills.