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

Dëvar Torah: Parashath Noach (Genesis VI,9-XI,32)

In last week’s parasha we found the birth of Noach (“Noah”) announced in the following terms:

This one will comfort us [Zeh yënachaménu] because of our deeds and the sorrow of our hands, because of the land which Ha-Shem has cursed.

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 113b) uses this verse to illustrate the precept "tzaddiq ba la‘olam, tova ba’a la‘olam" (“when a just/righteous person comes to the world, a good thing comes to the world”). Rashi, basing himself on the midrash, explains that this “good thing” was the invention of the plough. This occurred during Noach’s lifetime and effectively ended the curse placed on the Earth when the first man was driven from the Garden of Eden.

Our parasha opens:

This is the history of Noach; Noach was a perfect, righteous man in his generations [ish tzaddiq tamim bëdorothav]; Noach walked with G-d [eth haElo-him hithhalléch Noach].

The Talmud (‘Avoda Zara 6a) tells us that he was a “tzaddiq in his deeds, perfect in his ways,” but elsewhere (Sanhedrin 108a) picks up on the word bëdorothav to relate a controversy concerning whether this verse is in praise of Noach, or in fact the opposite.

Does it mean that despite all the depravity around him, Noach was nonetheless a tzaddiq? Or does it mean that he was a tzaddiq only by comparison to his contemporaries, but in some other generation he would have been nothing special?

The previous passages make clear that Noach’s absolute status was not in question, but rather his relative status, the degree to which he was a tzaddiq. Rashi defines this controversy by way of a comparison:

There are those who interpret [the word bëdorothav] as blameworthy: According to his generation he was a tzaddiq, but had he lived in Avraham’s generation he would not been considered anything.

The fact that our parasha begins with Noach’s career and ends with the advent of Avraham seems to invite this comparison.

Rashi continues, noting that our verse reads eth haElo-him hithhalléch Noach, while Avraham says of himself (XXIV,30): Ha-Shem asher hithhallachti lëfanav (“Ha-Shem before Whom I have walked”). Rashi explains the difference between walking “with G-d” and “before Ha-Shem”:

Noach needed assistance to support him, but Avraham strengthened himself and walked in righteousness in his own right.

The very same wording used here of Noach is used of another “minor” tzaddiq, Chanoch (ibid., V.22), and there Rashi explains that “he was a tzaddiq but light-minded ... therefore the Holy One, Blessed is He removed him before his time and killed him.”

Thus, we see that hithhalléch eth haElo-him reflects a level of character which, though it is tzidquth (“righteousness”), is somehow of a lower, dependent sort, whereas hithhalléch lifnei Ha-Shem is something much loftier, independent. It is to this higher level that King David aspired: Ethhalléch lifnei Ha-Shem bë’artzoth hachayyim (“I shall walk before Ha-Shem in the lands of life”; Psalms CXXVI,9).

In commenting on the first verse in Genesis, Rashi notes that the Creation account uses the Divine name Elo-him instead of Ha-Shem and explains:

At the beginning, it arose in thought to create [the universe] with the measure of judgment [din], and He saw that the world would not endure, and he moved up the measure of mercy [rachamim] and associated it with the measure of din, and this is what is written, "on the day on which Ha-Shem Elo-him made Earth and heaven" (II, 4).

Note that Ha-Shem precedes Elo-him; Rashi is basing himself on the common Jewish teaching that the various Divine names signify different aspects of the One G-d as perceived by us: Ha-Shem representing rachamim and Elo-him representing din.

Rabbi Shëlomo Carlebach, in his Maskil liShlomo, suggests that Rashi does not mean here that G-d changed His mind; rather, it means that there are two orders of creation interwoven together: a lower, dependent order which exists by sufferance, requiring at every stage support and help (“mercy”) from the Creator; and a higher, self-justifying level, mature and aware, which represents the pinnacle of achievement for created beings, able to stand in the light of Divine judgment, G-d’s wish for all His creatures.

Rabbi Carlebach cites numerous sources to illustrate this beautiful and subtle idea, none more telling than a midrash which likens the first level to a toddler, unsteady on his feet and unable to walk very far with the constant reassurance and support of his parent’s hand, whereas the second level is that of an older, more mature child, capable of walking independently.

What makes this metaphor so striking is that it contains within itself its own self-limitation. There is no indication that the higher, din-orientation is somehow actually independent of G-d’s constant kindnesses, any more than a child of seven is no longer in need of his parents. However, the way in which he needs them, and his parents’ expectations for him, are very different than they were when he was two.

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.