The Last Temptation of Noah

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I once gave a sermon, at the Jewish New Year, during which a thunderstorm broke out and water started to pour through the synagogue roof. I’d like to claim that this was a cleverly-orchestrated special effects stunt that I’d managed to engineer; or even an example of my special relationship with what our tradition, anthropomorphically, calls ‘Our God in Heaven’. (Alas, it was just a leaking roof).
The title of the sermon was pinched – or ‘adapted’, as we writers say – from Martin Scorsese’s ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’ which had come out that year (1988). In view of the release of  Darren Aronofsky’ s quasi-biblical epic ‘Noah’ with Russell Crowe as the eponymous hero – presumably not timed to coincide with the publication this week of the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report which relates what we already know in our guts, that global warming has already left its mark “on all continents and across the oceans”, creating havoc with our global weather including extreme heat waves and floods, as well as endangering food supplies; and that we are on the brink of “abrupt and irreversible changes” – I would like to share with you the text of this story-sermon, which has, sadly, frighteningly, stood the test of time…
Even before the Disaster I felt misunderstood. I only wanted a quiet life. To come home after work, relax and rest. After all – and this used to be my private joke, though it feels pretty grim now – that’s what my name Noah means: rest.
Apart from my work and my family I couldn’t really be bothered with anything else. I didn’t have many interests, not even much ambition. I used to sit in the office during the day and dream of the journey home, opening the door, playing with the kids (when they were smaller), or, later on, helping them with their homework. In the evening I’d switch on the TV in order to switch off my thoughts, those terrible thoughts that kept coming, waves of them, more and more insistently over the years. All I ever really wanted was a rest – from the pressures that we all suffered. Just a rest from it all: the bills, the relatives, the dinner parties. Rest: it was all I wanted. Honestly.
Oh yes, I was known for my honesty. Even those who didn’t like me said I had integrity. They used other words too, which sounded good, words like ‘upright’, ‘blameless’, even (God help me) ‘righteous’. But I never trusted them – not the words, nor the people. Words had lost their solidity, their truthfulness, long before. In those days words meant their opposite.
When that TV presenter interviewed me (near the end this was, after I’d made all the fuss), he was the one who called me ‘righteous’. But I could hear in the tone of his voice how he really meant ‘self-righteous’, how the compliment disguised the attack. And who knows, maybe he was right, maybe I did begin to feel a bit self-righteous. Because I did know what was going to happen. I wasn’t taken in by all those words: freedom of opportunity, economic growth, individual choice…I could see what was going on, all that heartbreak beneath the surface, and what was going to happen if we didn’t change. I did know it would end in disaster; but I didn’t know just how bad it would turn out. I didn’t, honestly…I can tell you don’t believe me. It’s all right – I’m used to that. Nobody ever believed me then, either. Before.
You see, I worked in industry, middle-management. Yes, of course I was a professional – all our friends were. The firm made agricultural and forestry equipment. When it expanded we went into animal feed, fertilisers, that sort of thing – quite a broad spread – even livestock eventually. We were successful too: public company, safe investment, high annual returns, particularly good Third World market, what with all the problems they kept having. I was responsible for overseas sales. Quite an irony really when you think about it, considering what happened.
I was able to laugh more in those days too. Earlier on that was. I used to enjoy having fun: a good party, that sort of thing. I don’t think I ever entirely lost my sense of humour – but I kept noticing things I’d prefer not to have known about. I’d read a report here, hear a programme there, bits and pieces of knowledge on the periphery of my consciousness. I tried to keep the knowledge at a distance, but it became harder. Things kept happening, kept forcing themselves on my attention.
First we had that string of warm years: ’80, ’81, ’83, ’87, ’88 – the hottest since records began they said. It didn’t bother me really: I was only worried about getting a bit of sun on our holidays. And where I went it rained anyway. But the statistics were global ones: it was beginning to warm up rather dramatically. Only a few degrees over a century didn’t sound so much, but researchers in one country began to see the changes in plants and trees, and then another group at the other side of the world discovered that the world’s beaches were eroding. These were just a couple of the warnings of the impending crisis.
I did mention it to a few people at work – after all it could have had implications for our sales – but they just shrugged and said that these kinds of reports are not reliable, they come and go, you know how it is…
And although I didn’t really know how it was, it was easier at the beginning to change the subject and ask what home computer they thought I should buy. It felt safer ground.
But then the dreams started. All that water imagery, all that flooding, swimming, drowning, seas and swimming pools, struggling to keep afloat – every night a new variation on the theme. My analyst told me that this was ‘archetypal symbolism’: the struggle of the Self to emerge from the Sea of Consciousness. I changed my analyst. The next one told me it was about separation from mother.
And all the time I knew that something else was going on. It’s not that they were wrong – but something else was going on, much bigger than me. Everyone had heard about the ‘greenhouse effect’, how carbon dioxide in the atmosphere acts like glass in a greenhouse, letting the sun’s rays through to the earth but also trapping some of the heat that would otherwise be radiated back into space. We were burning all that coal and oil and gas, more and more of it, year after year – and the planet was heating up. Then there were those other gases: like the ones in those take-away cartons. Some firms changed them, others said the evidence was inconclusive (though of course it ‘merited further study’). But that still left aerosol sprays and even fridges – and I liked ice in my gin and tonic.
I really didn’t know what to do. But I soon knew all the responses I’d get. The Chairman of the Board put it to me with his usual delicacy: what do you want us to do – grow our own vegetables? bicycle to work? light the office with candles?
The problem was that I didn’t have any answers. I only had fears and questions and intuitions – and they wouldn’t go away. But it was that presentation I did at the shareholders meeting that finally wrecked me. I spoke about the rainforests we were destroying (indirectly of course: our firm only sold the equipment); I gave them all the facts and figures, how the earth was such a fragile interconnected ecosystem (oh yes, by then I’d learnt the jargon), that what the inhabitants of planet earth were doing was quietly conducting a giant environmental experiment. Were it to be brought before any responsible local council for approval it would be firmly rejected as having potentially disastrous consequences.
At the meeting there were a variety of responses: anger and boredom mainly, though a few people seemed rather subdued afterwards. Perhaps it was naive to expect anything more – after all I’d just bought a new car as well. I didn’t want to change my lifestyle either. I was comfortable, I admit it. But we all were then – at least in the circles I mixed in.
Getting the push after that speech was actually a blessing in disguise. I devoted myself more and more to trying to get people to see what was going on around them all the time. I got involved with political groups, environmental groups. I started writing letters to ‘The Guardian’. I even spoke to religious groups (strange: the Christians were always more interested than the Jews).
I gave the same speech wherever I went. ‘The climate that has allowed the growth of civilisation and agriculture – and to which all our crops, customs and structures are adapted – is virtually certain to disappear. The world will become warmer than at any time since the emergence of humanity on earth. This threatens to take place over the next forty years. Humanity will find it hard to adapt, particularly in a world fragmented by national boundaries and competing interests. Harvests will fail more drastically. the cities we live in will go under water.
People began to hate me for what I was saying. They used to avoid me, fear me: fear what I was saying, I suppose. A poet had written ‘Human kind cannot bear very much reality’ and it was true. I didn’t blame people – I couldn’t bear it either. My wife began to catch me talking to myself. I was trying to keep myself sane, keep myself from the madness of knowing that something was inevitable – that was the word the experts used – unless we worked together. Funnily enough, I did have faith in humanity then. I believed that people could change, with help and encouragement. And groups of people working together – communities – could do a lot. But first we had to realise we’d taken a wrong direction, we had to turn from what’s best only for ourselves, our family, our community, our nation.
Near the end I realised that we needed to pray too – though at first I was more sceptical about that. Religion had always felt a bit too cosy and comfortable: too much security was on offer. And I certainly had no security to offer anyone. I used to take myself off for long walks and look at the mess around me – the squalor, the poverty, the drugged ones, the violence, the neglect, the corruption, the decay.
I saw the goodness too, in people I met, the beauty in small things. I could see infinity in a grain of sand and feel eternity in an hour. But overall, on these walks, I felt the inferno, the ‘moronic inferno’ one of those clever Jewish novelists called it: the levelling down of contemporary life where people found themselves in that chaotic state, overwhelmed by all kinds of outer forces – political, technological, military, economic – which carry everything before them with a kind of disorder in which we were supposed to survive with all our human qualities. Who really had sufficient internal organisation to resist, let alone to flourish?
It wasn’t possible to go on that way. And in their hearts and souls, people knew it. It wasn’t just me: I really was just an ordinary person. In my generation I was nothing special. I knew it. Later on, long after the Disaster, when they told those stories about me, things got changed somehow. It was true that I became wholeheartedly committed to speaking the truth I experienced, sharing my vision of what I knew was going to happen. But if I’d lived in a less corrupt time, nobody would ever have heard of me. Even the rabbis acknowledged that, later.
I could never explain properly those intuitions I’d have when I was off walking. I just knew in the end that I had changed and that others could change too. It was very simple. I had an inner voice that I just had to trust. Everyone had that voice deep inside them. It was obvious. But in those days so many temptations drowned out that knowing voice, so many possibilities of seduction away from our still and silent truth.
I once made a list, half-jokingly, of what I thought we needed to remember to be fully human, to be what we ought to be in this world. I jotted down seven things – it surprised me there were so few. I sent them on a postcard to a friend and she wrote back saying I sounded like some kind of religious nut. It sounded, she said – she was very cynical though – as if I was walking with God when I went off on my expeditions round town. I wasn’t hurt by this. Well, not really. It stayed in my mind though, that phrase, ‘walking with God’.
Later on, when they told those stories about me, they seemed to think it was a compliment: that somehow this was an uplifting, desirable experience for a person to have. Actually it was hell.
I’ll tell you the list, but before I do I want to say that I’ve gone against most of them in my time. There were so many temptations then, not even a saint could have resisted them. And I was no saint. But I do know there are some things that just have to be. If we’re going to make it through this time. And call it walking with God, if you like.
First, there has to be a system of justice. Real justice allows a society to function and the individual to retain dignity. And a system of political and legal justice means that the disadvantaged are protected from abuse – the abuse from power, money or class.
Secondly: murder – it’s not on. We have to deal with our violent feelings in some other way. And leading on from there, thirdly: robbery, theft, is out too. We have to find an alternative way of channelling our greed, and our envy of what others have.
Nor can incest be allowed. That wise professor from Vienna eventually uncovered just how much we do secretly want to express our sexuality inside our family. But we just can’t have our mummy or daddy or children or siblings in that way. We’ve got to find someone else to do it with. And that reminds me of what happened after the Disaster. We were in such chaos. There was just our family, and my middle boy Ham did something to me which I can never forgive him for, that bugger, God damn him! But that’s another story.
Yes, the fifth on the list is blasphemy. It’s no use my letting rip like that. I still have to find a way of getting rid of this anger. The sixth thing I listed I called idolatry. It was a handy word, it covered a lot of things. Actually I was thinking of all those adverts on TV, and all those colour supplements offering me happiness on every page. We were drowning in luxury in those days: so many divinely decadent choices. We knew it couldn’t go on forever but we worshipped production and consumption. I loved buying things – it made me feel so secure, so good about myself. Crazy, really, looking back.
Last on my list, number seven, sounds strange now, though at the time it made sense. I called it ‘not eating flesh cut from a living animal’. You see I wanted something on my list that captured the essence of evil: that degraded the one who performed it and cause pain and terror to the victim. I suppose I could have chosen another image, another way to express this. Towards the end people came up with worse things, believe me.
Anyway, I thought out these seven things during my walks. Afterwards – after ‘it’ happened I mean – people saw them as the natural religious basis vital to the existence of any human society. I suppose I’m rather proud of that. They even called them after me: ‘the seven laws given to the descendants of Noah’.
Right. I’m nearly finished now. I just want to tell you what happened in the end, when the Disaster came.
I saw it all so clearly: we’d reached the point where the rate of environmental change in my lifetime was going to be many times the maximum that our planet’s eco-system could endure. There was no escaping this fate unless a radical transformation took place. One day I saw it all so clearly that I grew really desperate. I felt more hopeless than I’d ever done before. I felt closed in, with this great weight around me. I’d built it myself, this mental structure I’d constructed from all the evidence I’d gathered. It was like a vessel of doom I lived in. I was going crazy inside it. I was in complete despair.
I just wanted to be left alone. The understanding I had was too much for me. I felt hundreds of years old. It felt completely hopeless. I felt overwhelmed by…helplessness, that’s the word: I was completely helpless, like a baby. I couldn’t do anything more. I had no strength left.
And I started to cry. It’d never happened before. After all I was a man. But I did, I broke down, in front of my family: all of them were there – my wife and my sons and their wives. And I wept and wept. Tears of bitterness. Tears of remorse. Tears of anger. Tears of grief. I cried and I cried and I just…floated away.
It’s hard to describe now. The sadness just flooded out of me. It went on and on, all those years and years of frustration and pain trapped inside – it all welled up and spilled out. The tears just seemed to pour out of me – it felt like days – for the sadness of it all, and the pity.
The rest you know of course. It’s history – of a sort. It’s in the books, though I know people argue over the details. Nothing ever was the same again.
Though there was one helpful moment: when I saw that rainbow. Yes, I know it’s only the reflection of the sun in moist atmosphere, but I’d never really looked at one before. Really looked, I mean. That one time though, soon after the Disaster, I saw those seven colours arched above me, translucent and glorious and shimmering. And I suddenly remembered the seven laws I’d jotted down on that card; and it was my conceit, I know, but I felt there was some connection between those seven basic norms for how we are to live together and those seven basic colours in which the world is enveloped.
There was a harmony at that moment: seeing how the natural world and our human world reflected each other’s inner grace. And at that moment I knew, I knew as clearly as if I heard a voice speak it in my ear, I knew that this disaster could never be again. Not ever. It felt like a promise. If I were a religious man I’d call it a blessing. Never again – such relief, I can’t tell you.
‘While the earth remaineth, seedtime and harvest and cold and heat and summer and winter and day and night shall not cease’. The words just formed themselves in my head. It would never happen again. That’s all there is to say.
Oh, I almost forgot. The ‘last temptation of Noah’. You want to know the very last temptation? It was after it was all over and we had to pull ourselves together and start again. That was hard. We didn’t know where we were, where we were going, what we were doing. Everything had gone. We survivors felt so helpless so much of the time. And the hardest part was that we kept remembering how it’d been before: so comfortable, so secure – you’ll never know. That was the worst part: I couldn’t help but remember it.
I became very morose, self-pitying. I just wanted to forget, to forget how it’d been. And, I admit it, I started to drink. They never tell the story this way, but this is how it was. They always make me out as the father of vineyards and winemaking, but I’m telling you: soon I was drinking all the time – I just wanted to blot it all out.
And that was the last temptation: the temptation to blot it all out, to forget the knowledge I carried, the understanding I had, the lonely experiences I’d been through, the intuitions I’d borne all these years. I tried to drown myself in drink: another flood.
But it wasn’t to be of course. It seems that my destiny is to remember, to remain aware. I never did get my rest. I learnt that death is the only release from the burden of consciousness. And that while I lived, my work was just given to me to do. It was wherever I happened to be.
I even wrote a poem about it towards the end. Someone else later took the credit for it of course – but then none of us is perfect. Are we?
To open eyes when others close them
to hear when others do not wish to listen
to look when others turn away
to seek to understand when others give up
to rouse oneself when others accept
to continue the struggle even when one is not the strongest
to cry out when others keep silent
to be a Jew
it is that
it is first of all that
and further
to live when others are dead
and to remember when others have forgotten.
[Second Day Rosh Hashanah sermon, Finchley Reform Synagogue, London, UK, September 13th, 1988]
Rabbi Howard Cooper is Director of Spiritual Development at Finchley Reform Synagogue, London, and a psychoanalytic psychotherapist in private practice. He is the author of ‘The Alphabet of Paradise: An A-Z of Spirituality for Everyday Life’ (SkyLight Paths Publishing, Woodstock, Vermont) and blogs at