Noach - 5780
“Noah was a righteous man; he was blameless in his generation; Noah walked with God.’ -Genesis 6:9
Most of us are familiar with the Torah Portion, Noah (Noach in Hebrew). From a young age we learn how Noah brought each of the animals into the ark two by two. When teaching the story, we focus on the whimsical nature of the animals all together aboard the boat rather than the much darker story of the entire society being destroyed—which is in reality a frightening tale.
How could it be that Noah and his family were the only people that God thought were worth saving? What made Noah so special?
Noah is described in the text as “a righteous man, an ish tzaddik … b’dorotav in in his generation.” Why it is specifically mentioned that he was righteous in his generation? This is usually understood to mean that he was the ONLY person that was deemed righteous-that was not acting wickedly. This begs the question-Would Noah be righteous in another generation? Is he deemed righteous only in comparison to the others?
Being righteous in his generation could be viewed as compliment—even in a time when no one was doing the right thing—Noah did not give in to peer pressure— he didn’t follow the crowd; he had a strong ability to not give into temptation. This could have made him even more righteous!
Other rabbinic commentators read this disparagingly; he was righteous only in comparison to his generation, but if he were in the generation of Abraham, he would not be considered anything special.
Why the comparison with Abraham? The text tells us that “Noah walked with God” yet” later on in Genesis it is said that Abraham walked before God.” The rabbis interpret this discrepancy to mean that Noah needed support while Abraham was strong and walked independently in his own righteousness.
To Rashi, Noah was a person of insufficient faith who “would not have been considered anything” when held up next to a truly righteous man. In Rashi’s opinion, Noah is thoroughly and unremarkable average. Yet, compared to the bad people in his generation, he’s pretty good!
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explains that “one way of reading the story of Noah is as a failure of leadership. Noah is righteous but not a leader. He was a good man who had no influence on his environment.” Judaism teaches the importance of our collective responsibility (kol Yisrael arevim ze bazeh, “All Israel is responsible for one another, Shevuot 39a).
The Hasidism called Noah a tzaddik im peltz. “a righteous man in a fur coat.” What does this mean? There are two ways of keeping warm on a cold night. You can wear a fur coat, or you can light a fire. If you wear a fur coat you warm only yourself. However, if you light a fire, you warm others as well.
As Rabbi Sacks points out, Noah is a good man, even a righteous man but he isn’t a leader. He was good at taking care of the animals and protecting his own family, but what about his fellow human beings?
When we see the corruption in today’s world—of which sadly there is much—do we look to protect only ourselves and our families or do we have a collective responsibility towards greater humanity? Do we want to be a person in a fur coat or one who lights a fire to warm others?