Part of an ongoing series about building an ethic of social justice and a world worthy of the sacred.
How to cultivate a spiritual ethic of building a social justice commitment in human life: first create the world, then (almost completely) destroy it.
Especially amidst today’s political tempests and rising sea levels, Torah’s setting for Noah and the ark evokes the urgency resounding in most every call to social action: we’re on the wrong path, the stakes are high, and we must act now.
Then again, Noah was no prophet.
Torah’s narrative of Noah and his ark records God to herald the end of humanity, except for Noah and his family. The reasons were to root out human “violence” (Gen. 6:11, 13) and “corruption” (Gen. 6:12). Tradition later piled on: all humanity had become crooks (Genesis Rabbah), lewd and idolatrous (Rashi), murderers and rapists (Chizkuni). In essence, “Humanity 1.0” sucked except for Noah who supposely was ““righteous” and “pure,” who “walked with God” (Gen. 6:9).
Yet Noah was silent to it all. Noah was no Abraham, who later tried to talk God out of destroying Sodom and Gomorrah. Noah was no Moses, who repeatedly counseled his people and tried to protect them from the worst consequences of their wrongs. Noah was no Isaiah, or Jeremiah, or Amos, or Hosea or Jonah – prophets who advocated for people to change their ways.
Noah engaged with nobody – not with other people, and not with God. Instead, Noah did only as he was told: he built an ark, gathered his family and animals, and shut the door.
Torah might have chosen a more relatable prophet of social justice than Noah, but maybe that’s precisely the point. Noah’s story seems mainly about what not to do. After all, most everything about Noah’s story didn’t “work”: by its terms, the story became a prelude for different choices. God vowed never again to destroy humanity (though we ourselves still might). God’s next human partner (Abraham) would be hospitable, generous and courageous – even trying to talk God out of destruction. Sodom and Gomorrah would show that God’s intention to directly eliminate the human impulse toward violence and corruption had utterly failed. Instead, God would change plans and empower humanity, bolstering our agency to make better choices and heal the hurts of our poorest ones.
Read in this way, as a prelude, Noah’s story lays the cornerstone to build a social justice ethic in ourselves and our communities.
This social justice ethic begins by rousing what Dr. Martin Luther King called the “fierce urgency of now” – the high stakes, the press of this moment. For Noah, there wasn’t yet evidence of any impending flood, but still Noah acted. We today already see flood waters rising, democracy fraying, and gun violence shredding childhoods and families and communities – so what exactly are we waiting for?
Second, to translate urgency into action, a social justice ethic stands on a strong foundation of personal agency – our sense that it’s on us to do, and that we can do it, however difficult or uncertain the road ahead might be. While Torah is clear that the architect of the Mishkan (the newly freed Israelites’ central Dwelling Place for the sacred) was a trained builder, nothing in Torah indicates that Noah was a builder much less able to build a seaworthy vessel. Even so, Noah went to work. We too can do far more than at first we might imagine.
Third, social action becomes effective when it embraces the flexibility of pragmatism. Torah’s early chapters depict a God very much in the laboratory of creation. Eden turned out not to be so Edenic. Humanity became corrupt. Not even destruction would wash away humanity’s worst impulses. So God kept adjusting – perhaps not changing ultimate goals but adopting new strategies to achieve them. So must we: an inflexible social justice ethic ultimately is likely to be brittle and ineffective.
Fourth, effective action becomes a way of life only by cultivating resilience. Especially in this era of short attention spans and instant gratification, it’s easy to get distracted, choose the easy path or simply give up. It’s telling, though, that unlike most major physical structures built in the Jewish Bible, only Noah’s ark was built over a duration of time left indeterminate. Torah is clear about how long Israelite slaves built for Pharaoh, and how long newly freed Israelites worked in the desert to build the Mishkan. But how long did Noah need to build an ark large enough to carry every species into the future?
Tradition’s commentators varied wildly in their answers. One suggested five years, another 52 years, another fully 100 years. We don’t know – and that’s the point. We don’t know how long the task will take or how long the journey will be. We don’t need to know, and that’s what we must learn and teach so that social justice can become a sustainable way of life. Resilience in social justice means that we start acting now, intending to do all we can as quickly as we can – not because we know how long the work will take, but precisely because we don’t.
In this way, a permanent spiritual ethic of social justice is the antithesis of modern life’s short attention spans and instant gratification – and maybe a partial remedy for them to balance and nourish the soul.
We’re all part of the fabric of creation that is fragile, sometimes threadbare and commended utterly to our care – yours and mine. So act like it’s up to you. Act like the whole future depends on it. Act believing you can do far more than you might imagine. Act with a plan and with openness to changing strategies. Act because the time is now, however long it takes.
Oh, and watch out for the llamas onboard: I hear they can spit.
Rabbi David Evan Markus is a founding builder at Bayit. He serves Temple Beth El of City Island.