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Was Noah a Righteous Man? This Week’s Torah Commentary

Just as I focused on the very first verse of last week’s portion Breishit, I would like to do the same with this week’s portion Noach (Noah), Genesis 6:9-11:32. But let’s look at a more fundamental question first: Why would the portion of Noah start in the middle of a chapter?

The answer is that the traditional Jewish division of the Torah into weekly portions long predates the assignment of numbered chapters and verses. Chapters and verses are a medieval and early modern Christian invention. Jewish versions of the Bible adopted this practice during these recent centuries. This numbering practice has no relation to the much older divisions of the Jewish scribal tradition.

Our ancient Sages carefully and ingeniously chose the beginning of each week’s portion by selecting a verse or section that they found particularly resonant with meaning, often presaging the main themes of that portion. The weekly Parasha (portion) then derives its name from the first significant word of that first verse, in this week’s case “Noah.” Traditional commentators make a point of plumbing the very beginning of the parasha, with the understanding that, even if its deeper meanings are not immediately clear, its selection was in no way arbitrary.

And so will we:

These are the generations of Noah: Noah was a righteous man, wholehearted in his generation; Noah walked with God. (Genesis 6:9)

Rashi, representing the mainstream of Jewish interpretation, asks the question, “Why does the Torah say that Noah was a righteous man (tzaddik) in his generation? If he was a tzaddik, would he not be so no matter what generation he was born into? Why did it not simply say ‘Noah was a righteous, wholehearted man’?” Assuming, as Jewish interpretation does, that no phrase or word in the Torah is superfluous, Rashi wants to explain the reason for the use of “in his generation.” As always his explanation is grounded in a sophisticated and intensely close reading of not only this verse, but of the entire Torah. And, as always, Rashi (and the Jewish tradition) assumes that there is more than one answer; that, in fact, the Torah by its sublime nature must contain multiple meanings.

Rashi answers (my paraphrase): Some of our Sages interpret “in his generation” favorably. That is, Noah managed to be righteous despite the evil that surrounded him. Had Noah been born in a more righteous generation with more positive influence, he might have become even more righteous. Other Sages interpret “in his generation” derogatorily. That is, had Noah been born in Abraham’s generation, compared to Abraham Noah would not have measured up. 

There are streams of ancient Jewish thought supporting both of these views, and Rashi cites them both. However, Rashi appears to prefer the derogatory view of Noah, and finds his support in the latter part of the same verse, Noah walked with God. In its plain meaning, this is obviously complimentary of Noah. But Rashi searches the Torah for other places where it describes a character as hit’halech, that is, walking with God. Rashi finds that the same wording is used to describe Abraham’s relationship with God, but with a crucial difference:

But concerning Abraham, Scripture says (Genesis 24:40): “Abraham walked before (as in, ahead of) God”. [Noah walked with God, that is] Noah required [God’s] support to uphold him [in righteousness], but Abraham strengthened himself and walked in his righteousness by himself.

Indeed, of Abraham it says that he walked ahead of or before God, whereas Noah walked with or next to God. Therefore, Abraham’s righteousness was self-generated, whereas Noah’s depended on God’s support. And what, according to this reading, proves this hypothesis? When God instructs Noah to build an ark, God tells Noah that God is going to bring a flood and destroy all that lives on earth, for humans have sullied God’s magnificent creation through their immorality and selfishness. In response, Noah follows all of God’s instructions but is silent. In contrast, when God tells Abraham about Sodom and Gomorrah’s reprehensible immorality, and that God is considering destroying the cities, Abraham is not silent. Abraham approaches God and chastises God!

“Will you indeed sweep away the innocent along with the wicked? What if there are fifty innocent people down there? Will you not spare the city for the sake of the innocent in its midst? Far be it from You to do such a thing, killing innocent and wicked alike. Far be it from you! Must not the judge of all the earth act justly?” (Genesis 18:23-25)

Wow, look at the audacious way that Abraham gets in God’s face, and demands that God live up to God’s own potential as loving and just. I think we call that chutzpah!

In contrast, Noah is silent, compliant to God’s commands, but with no apparent ability to stand up independently for all of the innocents who will suffer as a result of God’s decree. Hence the argument that Noah’s righteousness is relative to the wicked generation in which he lived, and next to Abraham Noah would not have stood out as exceptional.

By this reading, we understand why our tradition considers Abraham our spiritual father, and not Noah. Abraham was willing to be in active relationship with God. In the lineage of the Torah, Abraham is the first human willing to question and dispute the so-called Divine Will; Abraham courageously carries a sense of justice in the face of the unfairness of the universe. In the narrative of our Torah, Abraham is the one that God has been waiting for – just as God discerned in the Garden of Eden that the lonely Adam longed for a counterpart and a friend, so God has been longing for human beings who could be God’s counterpart and friend, as it were. God even calls “Abraham, my friend” (Isaiah 41:8) Perhaps that is why God says about Abraham, “and you shall be a blessing.” (Genesis 12:3)

Abraham is the prototype of Yisrael, Israel, which means “God-wrestler”, a name we carry even today. But Noah merely obeys, and the innocent perish.

One might say that Noah has a deficit in empathy. “Empathy deficit disorder”, the human capacity to be numb to the suffering of others, might in fact be the very source of the evil that God feels compelled to wash away with the Flood. Some commentators somewhat fancifully interpret Noah’s sojourn on the ark as God’s “treatment plan” for Noah’s empathy deficit disorder. Noah is locked up in the Ark for a year with the task of feeding and caring for all the animals. In the process Noah is forced to develop empathy for the needs of all living creatures. Only then is Noah permitted to leave the ark, for only then is Noah fit to become the new Adam, the new progenitor of the human race.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Jonathan