Parshat Noach



 Rabbi Reuven Mann

Young Israel of Phoenix

All of mankind owes a great debt of gratitude to Noach.  He is arguably the most unrecognized and underappreciated figure in all of human history.  Why is he so important?  Well, if it weren’t for him the world would have been destroyed and none of us would exist.  Is there anyone else you can think of who single handedly saved the entire planet from annihilation?  The idea that we might not have been were it not for the righteousness of a single individual who lived thousands of years ago is extremely offensive to our narcissism but it is something that we need to acknowledge.  In the introduction to the story of the Flood the Torah states, “And G-d said, I will obliterate mankind that I have created from the face of the earth from man to animal to creeping things and to birds of the sky for I regret having made them.  But Noach found favor in the sight of Hashem.”  The world was steeped in evil and was not worthy of existence.  Only Noach found favor.  Had there been no Noach, Hashem would have destroyed His creation.

Why did Noach find favor?  Because “…Noach was a righteous man, flawless in his generations.”  Judaism believes in the capacity of the individual to withstand the influence of an immoral environment.  Noach was an independent thinker who eschewed the animalistic lifestyle of his society and chose the path of truth and morality for himself and his family.  One person can make a difference.  He can save the world.  You would think that Noach would be above reproach.  Judaism, however, is a religion of honesty and truth whose standards are very high.  The Rabbis question the implication of the words “…flawless in his generations.”  Some say it is intended as a compliment, ie. had he lived in the time of Abraham he would have been even greater.  However, other Rabbis take it as a criticism, ie. compared to the evil people of his time he was righteous, however, had he lived in the time of Abraham he would not be considered anything special.  At first glance this negative interpretation seems unduly harsh.  What moral weakness did the Rabbis detect in Noach which led them to downgrade his piety and place him below the level of Abraham?

In this week’s Haftorah, Hashem refers to the Flood as the “waters of Noach.”  In Hebrew the word for waters mei can also mean ‘from’.  Thus, exegetically the verse is saying that the Flood is from or because of Noach.  The Rabbis are holding Noach responsible for the waters that inundated the world.  At first glance this is incomprehensible.  Noach was the Tzaddik.  He saved mankind.  In what sense is he liable for the calamity which engulfed the world?

The Rabbis don’t mean to disparage Noach.  He was a great person who had the strength to separate himself from the corruption which surrounded him.  However, he was only able to save himself.  He did not go out and correct others, by showing them the evil of their ways and leading them to the truth.  In that sense alone, he is depicted as “responsible” for the deluge. However, they don’t mean that he was a selfish person who didn’t care about others.  He certainly did!  He just lacked the ability to mingle with the crowd and turn them around.  Had he joined together with them he would have been corrupted by their ways.  In order to save himself he had to separate from the evildoers.  Noach was correct not to sacrifice himself in a vain effort to save others. However, there is a higher level, that of
Abraham who was a “stranger and sojourner” among the people of his society.  His knowledge was so firm and love of truth so great that he could mingle freely with the most corrupt people and be a source of light and inspiration to them. Abraham represents the highest level of righteousness and compassion.  The mission of the Jewish people is to be a source of light and moral instruction to the nations.  To fulfill it, we must strive to rise above the “morality of the moment” and elucidate the eternal truths of Torah.  

The story of Noah has great relevance to our lives.  We live in an era of technological supremacy and moral depravity. Like the generation of the Flood instinctual gratification is the dominant theme of the culture and the ability to restrain our primal instincts has been seriously eroded.  Our children are being raised in a dangerous moral climate.  The story of Noach provides hope and inspiration.  It illustrates the power of the divine soul which gives us the capacity to recognize truth, rise above the enticements of the time, and lead a righteous life.  Let no one say that he can’t resist the tide and that he is only one person.  It is a wonderful thing to save others, but first and foremost, one must save oneself.  In doing so, you might save the world.