Insights on Parshas Noach
October 8, 2010
Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi said that we (the Jewish people) must live with the times meaning that we should keep up with the weekly Parsha. In that vein, I am going to discuss some themes relevant to Parshas Noach, which tells the story of Noach and the global flood.The Torah describes Noach as the most righteous in his generation. His generation was one of absolute depravity and immorality – hence the reason Hashem decreed a flood. However, there is some dispute among the rabbis as to the quality of Noach’s righteousness. There are two ways of assessing Noach as a person and yet like all disputes in Jewish textual analysis the two opinions are not mutually exclusive, but rather each represents a different vantage point of looking at the same thing.
Rashi cites the description of Noach being the most righteous in his generation as proof that Noach was not especially righteous, but righteous only by comparison to the evilness of his generation. According to Rashi, Noach did stand out as a righteous man during the time in which he lived. However, had Noach lived in the time of Avraham he would have been considered insignificant in terms of his morality. As far as Rashi is concerned, Noach was the best of the worst. The Talmudic Sage, Rabbi Yochanan agrees with Rashi. Indeed one can make a sound argument against the righteousness of Noach. For example we see he engages in lewdness and drunkenness in Bereshis 9:20-27.
However, there are some opinions of Noach that are more favorable. Some argue that the Torah’s description of Noach as righteous in his generation is to his credit. For example Resh Lakish, a rabbinic contemporary of Yochanan argues that if Noach still merited to be called righteous despite having grown up among such evil people, how much greater would he have been had he been raised among moral people? Rabbi Joseph Telushkin points out that perhaps because Resh Lakish had himself grown up in deprived circumstances (one account states he was raised in a circus and another among a band of thieves) he was more sympathetic to Noach and therefore in a better position judge him favorably.
Both ways of looking at Noach are equally valid. While the first opinion is often the one emphasized, I believe the latter should receive more attention. In any case, the story certainly drives home the point that one should be careful in choosing one’s environment. Judaism urges strongly that we should keep far away from a bad neighbor and live among good people, recognizing early on from the story of Noach and others that one’s actions are strongly influenced by the company one keeps. Rambam goes as far as saying that we should choose to dwell in a cave rather than live in a community full of evil people if those are our only two options. However, there is something to be said of taking one’s circumstances into account when judging another person’s actions. I do not mean that we excuse bad behavior and attribute one’s behavior to one’s environment – this is an immoral way of thinking that has become a recent trend in some factions of society and is not a Jewish idea. I am only saying that one who grew up among evil people or in a lifestyle that was antithetical to Torah values deserves more praise for being able to rise above such challenges.
I will close by briefly comparing and contrasting Avraham and Noach. When Hashem told Noach that He was going to destroy all of humanity except Noach and his family, Noach did not protest. He simply obeyed G-d’s command to build an Ark. However, when Hashem informed Avraham that He was going to destroy the evil cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, Avraham immediately began pleading and bargaining with Hashem to spare the cities (Bereshis 18:16-33). Also, the Torah makes no mention of Noach urging his fellow human beings to repent. He is portrayed as insular.
It took Noach 120 years to build the Ark. Perhaps people may have asked him why he was building it. However, he is never described as going out of his way to tell people the purpose of the Ark’s construction. Avraham on the other hand invited two travelers on the road to take a rest from the heat and enjoy some nourishment in his tent when he was still recovering from his circumcision. Abraham would frequently invite such strangers into his home and preach to them the message of ethical monotheism – the forerunner of Judaism.
Rabbi Chaim Mentz points out that each of us has qualities of both Noach and Avraham. It is good to be like Noach in keeping away from evil influences and temptations, but it is even more praiseworthy to be like Avraham by not reacting passively toward evil, but offensively. We should actively pursue positive change and spread goodness in a loving way like did our ancestor Avraham.
It is interesting to note that Hashem does not obligate non-Jews in observing all of the 613 mitzvos of the Torah. Most of humanity is not reasonably expected to do such a thing.What Hashem wants from them is that they stand strong, resist evil, and observe the 7 rules of universal morality known as the 7 laws of Noach. However, the Jewish people who are Avraham’s descendents and the inheritors of his legacy are obligated to not simply be good people. That is good for everyone else. The Jews must go above and beyond the call of duty by shining the light of goodness throughout the world and inspiring others to become moral and recognize Hashem. These are two different roles and two different functions and each person is judged only by the standards that are reasonably expected from them. Together the Noachides and the Avrahams can make this world a better place so that righteousness can cover the earth like water did in the time of the flood.
 Artscroll Chumash, 31
 Telushkin, Rabbi Joseph. Biblical Literacy, 16
Will Gotkin is a regular contributor for Gather The Jews.