“Noah – A Hero of Limited Proportions “

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Noah, we read of the only living person whom G-d considered worthy of being saved (together with his family) from the great flood waters that were to inundate the world.

As we have previously noted, Noah is a man of striking contrasts, which are extensively discussed and analyzed by both the sages and the Bible commentators.

One of the most famous Biblical comments authored by the great exegete, Rashi, is found on the opening verse of parashat Noah. The Torah writes, in Genesis 6:9, אֵלֶּה תּוֹלְדֹת נֹחַ–נֹחַ אִישׁ צַדִּיק, תָּמִים הָיָה בְּדֹרֹתָיו, These are the generations of Noah–Noah was a righteous man, perfect in his generations.

Rashi comments on the word בְּדֹרֹתָיו, in his generations, by stating that some sages conclude from this seemingly superfluous phrase that Noah was a man of great stature. They argue that had Noah lived in a generation of righteous people such as the generation of Abraham, he would have been even more righteous than Abraham. Others conclude that Noah should be regarded as a righteous person only when judged by the standards of “his generation.” Had Noah lived in a more upstanding generation, such as Abraham’s generation, he would hardly have been considered a person of moral significance.

Over the past few years I have been sharing with you, with increasing frequency, the commentaries of Rabbi Yaakov Filber, who is one of the leading contemporary scholars, educators and expositors of the philosophy of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook. Rabbi Filber astutely contrasts the differences between Noah and his great descendant, Abraham. He dramatically compares Noah’s limited personal vision and outlook, with the broad, visionary ideas and perspectives of Abraham.

Noah had the great misfortune of being born, and to have to live out his life in an environment that was exceedingly decadent and sinful. The Midrash in Bereshith Rabah 25, states that when G-d created the world he placed Adam, the first human being, in charge of everything. Animals that were trained to work in the fields, always responded obediently to the instructions of their masters. The furrows in the fields always followed the proper digging movements of the plow. However, once the human beings defied G-d and sinned by eating the forbidden fruit, nature rebelled. Field animals no longer responded to the instructions of their masters, nor did the furrow follow the path cut by the blades of the plow.

And so the world began its precipitous decline, until it hit bottom in the days of Noah. The commentators conclude that nature itself became corrupt, and deduce that fact from the verse in Genesis 6:3, לֹא יָדוֹן רוּחִי בָאָדָם לְעֹלָם, בְּשַׁגַּם הוּא בָשָׂר, [G-d says] My spirit shall not contend evermore concerning Man, since he is but flesh–not only will G-d’s living creatures not obey their masters, nature itself became corrupt. The Midrash states that harvesters could not harvest what they planted. They would plant wheat, and harvest thistles and thorns.

Initially, Noah seemed to be a man of broad vision, who was actually concerned with the needs of his generation. When he saw the great challenges faced by the workers in the field who had to plow by hand, he invented tools to relieve their burdens–a mechanical plow, the scythe and the sickle. Scripture actually testifies that members of his generation generously praised Noah by declaring, (Genesis 5:29), זֶה יְנַחֲמֵנוּ מִמַּעֲשֵׂנוּ וּמֵעִצְּבוֹן יָדֵינוּ, “This person [Noah] shall comfort us from our work and from the toil of our hands!”

Noah’s attempts to enhance societal life, proved unsuccessful. Members of his generation were thoroughly ungrateful, and Noah’s good deeds were “repaid” with corruption and violence, led by leaders who were known as, (Genesis 6:2), בְנֵי הָאֱלֹהִים,” sons of gods.” Soon the corruption spread to the multitudes, until the entire earth was filled with violence.

The Torah testifies (Genesis 6:9) that Noah walked with G-d. The rabbis of the Midrash HaGadol interpreted this to mean that Noah walked modestly, in innocence and with honesty before his Creator. Noah not only felt that his generation had betrayed him, but actually felt persecuted by his contemporaries. Refusing to forget how he had been mistreated, Noah finally decided to isolate himself from the members of his generation, and was determined not to forgive.

Becoming increasingly introverted, Noah stopped fraternizing with his former friends and neighbors, and began to focus exclusively on his own family. When G-d announced (Genesis 6:13), קֵץ כָּל בָּשָׂר בָּא לְפָנַי, “the end of all flesh has come before Me,” declaring that the world would soon be destroyed, Noah made no attempt to petition the Al-mighty for mercy on behalf of his friends and neighbors and other members of his generation. This is a stark contrast to Abraham, who pleaded for the people of Sodom to be forgiven, and to Moses who prayed to G-d to pardon those who sinned with the Golden Calf.

The Zohar, in parahsat Vayikrah, states that when G-d said to Noah, “the end of all flesh has come before Me,” Noah’s only question was, “What will You do with me?” Noah never asked G-d to show compassion to the other inhabitants of the world.

Without G-d’s intervention, the powerful rains began to fall and inundate the entire earth. The prophet, Isaiah 54:9, calls the flood waters, מֵי נֹחַthe waters of Noah, because everything depended upon Noah, and he did nothing to help the victims.

The Al-mighty had hoped that when the people would see Noah build an ark, they would ask him what he was doing. However, when Noah went out to buy cedar wood for the ark, all he would say was that G-d had told him to build an ark, and that there was going to be a flood. The people consequently paid no attention to him (Midrash Tanchumah).

Rabbi Filber asserts that the same malaise and discontent that Noah felt in his generation, Abraham also felt in his generation. Abraham, as well, was severely persecuted by the people of his generation, who even threw him into a fiery furnace because of his resistance to the idolatrous practices of the people. Abraham, too, could easily have resigned himself to a solitary life and refused to have anything to do with his contemporaries. When he was saved from the furnace, Abraham could have just opted to stay home and to focus on his own family and their needs.

Abraham, however, does not seek to avenge those who tried to kill him. Rather, as Maimonides writes in the Laws of Idolatry, chapter 1, Abraham rose and cried out in a loud voice to all the people, informing them that there was but one G-d for the entire world Who is worthy of their loyalty. Throughout his entire sojourn in Mesopotamia, Abraham, the “victim,” went back and forth, crying out and gathering all the people from city to city and from kingdom to kingdom, urging them to renounce their pagan practices, until he reached the land of Canaan.

Rav Kook in his essay, עֵרֶךְ הַתּֽחִיָּה Erech Hat’chee’yah, (Orot 145), lyrically portrays the character of Abraham,

A great and broad soul appears, filled with all its aspirations. Due to its immense desire for freedom and light, the soul feels the great pain of all the tragedies of the world. This was the soul of Abraham. How profoundly is his soul stirred when Abraham sees the possibilities of happiness and light that awaits each of G-d’s creatures. The lion [Abraham] then breaks out of its cage, takes hold of his staff, destroys the false idols and calls out with passion to the light–to the one G-d, to the G-d of the world.

Abraham, says Rabbi Kook, was not indifferent to the failures of the human being. Instead, he tried to correct them. This quality of Abraham, is what the nation of Israel eventually inherits, and embraces for themselves as the basis of their national way of life and their historic destiny.

Rabbi Filber concludes his essay in which he contrasts Noah and Abraham, by stating that there are many good reasons for those who live today to draw the wagons around them and hide from the many challenges of contemporary life–-to admit defeat and to say that there is little that can be done to change reality. However, we today, also have the choice to boldly stand up, like Abraham, and strive to address the source of the malaise.

We, today, can collectively overcome the depression that infects the world today, and strike out to bring a new positive and optimistic spirit to humanity. We can passionately announce that, with G-d’s help, all the problems we face can be solved. It is, thus, our solemn responsibility to go forth, to light the fire and to spread the spirit of G-d throughout the world.


May you be blessed.