Parashat Noach: Be a hero

Chaverim—Friends,

No doubt about it—Noah was a good person. In fact, the Torah tells us that he was the most righteous person in his generation. But, perhaps that’s like praising someone for being the best player on a losing team! Let’s look more closely at Noah.

Noah saved his family and the animals. This is all good. But something is missing. Nowhere do we read that Noah tried to persuade his friends, neighbors, and anyone who would listen to repent and change their ways. He didn’t utter a word of concern for all the people who were about to drown in the waters of the Flood. While it’s true that God commanded Noah to bring just his family and the animals aboard, you would think he would have argued with God about the death sentence for humanity.

The Hasidic master, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, once referred to a certain rabbi  as a tzadik in peltz—“a righteous person in a fur coat.” Here is what he meant: “When it is freezing cold outside, you can build a fire, or you can wrap yourself in a fur coat. If you wear a fur coat, you’re the only one who gets warm. But, if you build a fire, everyone else can get warm, as well.”

While Noah didn’t wear a fur coat during the Flood, he certainly remained content with saving just his family. When the decree of the Flood came, Noah did as he was told, but didn’t intercede on behalf of all those who would die.

Unlike Noah, Abraham, ten generations later, stands up to God. In a huge debate, Abraham asks God how many innocent people it would take to spare the city. For many sages, God chooses to make Abraham the first Jew precisely because of his concern for others. Righteous people cannot merely care about themselves and their families; they have to care about others as well. This is why, for example, we honor the righteous gentiles who saved Jewish lives during the Holocaust, often at the risk of their own lives. The greatest heroes in history have been those who have gone beyond their own needs and their own safety to save others.

Shabbat Shalom

—Rabbi Adrian M Schell (Source: Rabbi Salkin; Torah Commentary)

Noach—a righteous man?!

Noach, the central figure of this week’s parshah, is a bit of a conundrum. On one hand, he is described as ‘a righteous man, blameless in his generation‘ (Gen. 6: 9), but on the other hand, when told by God that every living thing on earth is about to be wiped out in a huge flood, he doesn’t turn a hair. He doesn’t protest – as Abraham does later on, when told by God of the impending destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah – and he doesn’t rush off and warn his contemporaries. In fact, he doesn’t say anything at all to anyone until he comes out with a curse against his grandson Canaan and a blessing for his sons Shem and Japhet. For most of the parshah he silently obeys God’s commands, but shows no reaction and no initiative.

The rabbis of the midrash were aware of Noah’s shortcomings, and interpreted the phrase ‘blameless in his generation‘ to mean that, in any other generation – such as that of Abraham – he wouldn’t have been considered particularly virtuous (Midrash Tanchuma, Noach: 5). He, so the rabbis, is not a bad person, but he has a certain passive quality that holds him back from true greatness.

Another midrash (Tanchuma, Noach: 14) compare Noach and Abraham as follows: Noach invents agriculture, cursing, slavery, and drunkenness – one positive and three negative. Abraham is responsible for old age, suffering, hospitality and inheritance – three positives (depending on how you view old age!) and one negative. There seems to be a continuum here, from the negative pole , through to the positive pole of Abraham.

Thus the rabbis see Noach as someone with potential, but limited by a lack of maturity, independence, and imagination. Abraham represents the next stage in the long, slow process of perfecting oneself: he is more active, more questioning, more likely to take the initiative and act, whether in welcoming strangers, defending sinners, or rescuing those in trouble, but not perfect, as we can read in a short while, when he is willing to sacrifice his own son.

We can learn something from both these figures, and in particular, can resolve to move on from our Noach-level to a more engaged and energetic Abraham-level.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Adrian M Schell (Source: Lindsey Taylor-Guthartz)

Torah Reading Shabbat Noach—Rosh Chodesh Cheshvan (01 Cheshvan 5778)

Genesis 6:9-11:32, Reading: Gen 7:22-8:22, Plaut p.61; Hertz p.29

Haftarah: Isaiah 66:1-13, 23 (Rosh Chodesh),  Plaut p.1492; Hertz p.944

Summary:

  • * God decides to cause a flood that will destroy the world, sparing only Noah’s family and the animals that Noah gathers together on the ark. (6:9-8:22)
  • * Life starts over again after the Flood. The Noahide Commandments are listed, and God uses a rainbow to make a symbol of the first covenant. (9:1-17)
  • * People start to build a city and the Tower of Babel. God scatters the people and gives them different languages to speak. (11:1-9)
  • * The ten generations from Noah to Abram are listed. (11:10-29:2)

 

Parashat Noach: The rainbow brings together, and is creating a whole

Eyelash-RainbowParashat Noach tells the story of God’s decision to destroy the earth with a flood because of the corruption and wickedness found in the world. Only Noach – the only righteous man on earth – his family, and a pair of every kind of creature on earth were to survive. Noach was told to build a large boat, the Ark, sufficient in size to accommodate the family and all the creatures. After the flood, those aboard the Ark started a new life on earth all over again, and God promised to Noach that never again a flood would be sent to destroy the entire earth.

Having saved Noach and his family, God enters into a new covenant with humanity. This includes the prohibition against eating live flesh (Genesis 9:4), the law against shedding another person’s blood (Genesis 9:6) and the instruction to be fruitful and multiply (Genesis 9:7). The rainbow is a reminder of the covenant which God entered into with Noach, not just for us, but also for God, who will see the rainbow: ‘And I will remember my covenant, which is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh’ (Genesis 9:15).
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