The snail-darter fish is smaller than a paperclip, yet Tennessee taxpayers spent £60 million to save it from extinction. Norway invested £25 million to carve a seed vault into frozen rock near the North Pole to store billions of seeds. Why do we care so much about preserving life in all its variants? We learned our lesson from Noah. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 108b) tells of his son, Shem, recalling life in the Ark: “My father didn’t know what to feed the chameleon. Cutting up a pomegranate one day, a worm dropped out and the chameleon ate it. From then on he would mash up wormy bran for that lizard.”
The Flood is the story of life slipping through the closing door of extinction, only to emerge on the other side by the slimmest of margins. Where it not for Noah’s old hands stirring that bran in some dark corner, no chameleons!
Our lives are fragile and we exist by the merest shred of divine grace. “Rewind the tape of evolution, play it again and the chances of human life emerging are highly improbable,” writes the biologist Stephen Jay Gould.
We Jews understand that life constantly pushes up against the possibilities of annihilation. From Moses wrapped in a bulrush ark on the Nile, to Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai escaping from the Roman siege of Jerusalem in a coffin, to the families who survived the Holocaust hidden away in closets, we have always sailed away from extinction in the flimsiest of vessels.
On this blue ark, hurtling through space, each of us must become a modern-day Noah. We stiff-necked folk, unbowed to the riptide of our extinction, are best endowed to stand against the global extinction of God’s creatures. For we still remember how to save the tiniest chameleon with our own hands.