This Week’s Old Testament: What Are Jews Learning at Synagogue Today? (Part 3)

If we now re-examine the phrases discussed, the metaphor becomes even more striking. The lower-level tzidquth of a Chanoch or Noach is expressed in terms of walking with G-d, holding His hand, so to speak, while the exalted, mature level of an Avraham is expressed as walking before G-d, as if to demonstrate: “Look, Ma, no hands!” The Maskil liShlomo suggests that for this reason Noach was not subjected to Divine tests or trials before being selected for his mission, whereas Avraham was put through no less than ten (as enumerated in the Mishna, Avoth V, 3).

The point of a test is to find out what the person being tested can do independently. A test in which the proctor provides the answers is pointless. Thus, a spiritual giant of Avraham’s stature is likely to be subjected to serious trials; those of us still clinging desperately to our Father’s hand are are still too unsteady on our feet to make testing worthwhile.

That said, our parasha and the Talmudic sources concur that Noach was a tzaddiq. What prompts Rashi to make his disparaging comparison?

The Rabbis long ago noted that the phrase zeh yënachaménu is unrelated to the name Noach. The word is based on the root n-ch-m with a meaning of “comfort, console,” and a number of Hebrew names are derived from it: Mënachem, Tanchum, Nachum, Nachman, Nacham, Nëchemya -- but not Noach.

Instead, the root from which Noach is derived means “rest, abide.” It is a long-standing principle of Biblical exegesis that the names people are called have significance and reveal something of their character. What does Noach’s name tell us of him?

Noach had a very long life, 950 years in toto (cf. Genesis IX,29). His first 600 years were spent in the depraved atmosphere of the world before the Mabbul, so inadequately mistranslated as “flood.” The téva, the huge wooden box built at G-d’s behest, was 120 years in the making. Rashi tells us why:

In order that the people of the Mabbul generation would see him working on it ... and would ask him, "What is this to you?" and Noach would say to them, "The Holy One, Blessed is He, will bring a Mabbul to the world," [and] perhaps they would repent.

A successful salesman has to believe in the product he is selling. Therefore, it is revealing that we are also told of Noach that he did not get into the téva until pushed, as it were, by G-d, because “Noach was also among the small in faith, believing and not believing that the Mabbul would come” (Rashi on VII, 7).

The dramatic impact of the great project was ruined by Noach’s diffidence. Whatever was going to happen, he and his would be all right, so (as my dear friend, Rabbi Ya’aqov Yisha’ya haLévi Anton once suggested to me) it was noach lo (“agreeable, all right to him”).

The impression is strengthened when we note that the great confusion of languages and dispersal of mankind as the result of the “city and tower” project in Mesopotamia (cf. XI, 1-9) also occurred during Noach’s lifetime. However, no Torah source records any hint of protest or complaint on his part against the pagan project or the Nimrodian regime which spawned it.

Contrast this with Avram, whose name means “exalted father.” The Talmud (Pësachim 118a) tells us that Avram was the heart of the resistance to Nimrod and his scheme, so much so that Nimrod tried to have him killed. What is more, Avram’s efforts were crowned with some success. We read of those “which [he and Sara] made in Charan” (Genesis XII, 5), which Onqëlos’ ancient Aramaic paraphrase explains as the converts to monotheism which they had made, proof that had Noach acted, he too could have been effective.

Noach’s low-level, “toddler” tzidquth was sufficient to save himself and his immediate family, but not effective in the world at large. Avram, the “big boy,” changed the world. The contrast is clear.