January 28, 2023 |

Noach, Righteous Dude

Everyone is familiar with the "BUT" phenomenon. As in, "I think you're a really great girl...BUT we'd be better as friends." Or "This is really great lasagna...BUT I'm just not that hungry." The BUT cancels out everything that came before. Nothing else matters once you've BUT'ed it out of existence. Even though it's usually used as a negative, it can be used as a positive as well. They were about to lose the game as time expired....BUT he sunk the half-court shot at the buzzer. We were about to understand what was going on in Lost....BUT then something bizarre and inexplicable happened.

This is how the sidra (Torah portion) of Genesis ends. To paraphrase the Torah: The people were really really bad and were ruining the world. Now, to quote the Torah:

"And God saw how great was the evil of mankind in the world and that all the desire of their hearts were only evil all the day long and God regretted that He had made human beings in the world and He was deeply saddened. And God said: 'I shall wipe out humanity - which I created - from off the face of the earth, from man to beast to creepy-crawly to birds of the sky, for I regret that I made them.' BUT Noach found favor in the eyes of God." (Genesis 6:5-8)

The one redeeming personality in the whole word was Noach. Now, he was not great enough - or so it seems - for God to save the whole world in his merit. But he was great enough to be saved, along with his family, to become the new first family of humanity. However, the Torah does not here describe what was so great about Noach. To answer this question, we can either look forward or backward. (This is true of all Torah study; the true interpretation is never only found in front of our eyes, but in the context of what ahs come before and what comes after.)

If we look backward, we find an intriguing hint about Noach's specialness, which is that Noach was special from the time he was born[1]. Not only was he the tenth generation from Adam, but when his father (Lemech) named him, he said: "This [one] shall comfort us from our hard work and the suffering of our labor, from the ground that God has cursed[2]." (Gen 5:29) Among the generations from Adam to Noach, Noach is unique in having an explanation given for his name and he is given special attention by the Torah[3]. However, it is possible that none of this is really to Noach's credit. First of all, when the people said "this one will comfort us", they could hardly have meant that they would all die in the flood. According to this, Noach was supposed to SAVE everyone, but in the end he failed and managed only to save himself. Second, there is a delicious double-entendre, for the phrase "this one shall comfort us" has the same Hebrew root as the word for "regret"[4], as in: this is the one that will finally convince God to regret having created human beings.

When we look forward, we see what Noach's real value. It is true that he failed to save his generation and that he never lived up to his potential. But the Torah loves Noach nonetheless and, at the beginning of our portion, it lavishes attention on his name, repeating it five times over the course of three verses:

Verse 8: "But Noach found favor in the eyes of God."

Verse 9: "These are the generations of Noach: Noach is a tzaddik (righteous man) and was unblemished in his generation; with God went Noach."

Verse 10: "And Noach bore three sons: Shem, Cham and Yefet."

What's special about Noach is that he focuses on his relationships with God, with his fellow human beings and with his family, his future generations. He finds favor in the eyes of God because he seeks a relationship with Him. As a tzaddik, he upholds justice and integrity (this is what tzedek means), even in a world where everyone cheats and profits thereby. As a tamim (unblemished one), he also understands mercy and generosity, going beyond the letter of the law to help others. But all the time, he retains his humility, walking with God, ascribing his virtue not to himself but to a higher power. Finally, Noach transmits these values to his children. I prefer to side with those commentators who believe that Noach's sons were saved from the flood based on their own merit (and not divine nepotism), but even their own merit is partially a product of their good upbringing.

There is something comforting about Noach as a role model. He represents the best of morality and righteousness before the Torah and before the special "way of God" was taught to Avraham. (This is our special legacy as Jews, to uphold the way of Avraham). He represents one who failed at leadership (influencing others to become righteous) but achieved spiritual integrity for himself and his family.It can be overwhelming to feel responsible to help others become good people or to take responsibility for the spiritual welfare of other Jews (trust me, I know). Let alone our own spiritual welfare. Alternatively, it can be arrogant and disingenuous to focus on "reforming" others' religiosity or spirituality if we are using it as an excuse not to pay attention to our own challenges and inadequacies.

Noach represents for us a first step, a way of first focusing on our relationship to God, our friends and neighbors and our future (our children).In emulating Noach, we know that there is another step graduating to the way of Avraham) but it becomes a step that we can take from a solid foundation. We should spend time on our own "4 cubits[5]", building our own ark, before supervising the construction efforts of others.

Shabbat shalom!

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[1] Ibn Ezra brings an alternative explanation that this social verse was said about him post-facto, after he became the generation's leader, or, as the midrash says, after he invented the plow, which made farming much easier.

[2] Referring to Adam's curse: "The ground will be cursed on your account, in sorrow will you eat [from] it all the days of your life. Thorns and brambles will grow from your sowing, but you shall eat of them. By the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread. Until you return to the ground from which you were taken, for from dirt you came and to dirt you shall return."

[3] This special attention has 2 other characteristics: a) a special verse is inserted about his name and b) he is the only one who has more than one of his children listed; all three of his sons are named.

[4] "nacheim" means to comfort and "nacham" means to regret. The Midrash points out that in either case Noach's name should have been Menachem or Nachman. Many commentators suggest that it derives from a different root ("nacha") which means "to rest" consistent with inventing the plow and a non-moral category.

[5] Four cubits (in Hebrew, dalet amot) is Rabbinic-speak for what we call "personal space."

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Rabbi Avi Heller

Joined: July 27, 2007

Originally from Denver CO, Rav Avi received a BA from BU and Rabbinic ordination and an MA in Bible from YU. Before joining MJE, he was Director of Jewish Education at BU Hillel, co-directed the BU Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus and was an Associate University Chaplain. He has been the...

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