Noach: Perfect or Lacking?

Eileh toldos Noach Noach ish tzaddik tamim hayah b’dorosav es haElokim his’halech Noach (6:9)

Noach, the namesake and focus of this week’s parashah, seems at first glance quite contradictory. On the one hand, the Torah itself explicitly testifies in the beginning of the parashah that he was perfectly righteous, and he alone merited to be saved from the destruction that befell his contemporaries. Everyone alive today is descended from him and exists only in his merit.

On the other hand, Rashi mentions that some Sages question how pious Noach truly was. They point out that the verse emphasizes that he was righteous in his generation, which can be read as implying that if he had lived in another generation, such as that of Avraham Avinu, he wouldn’t have been considered unique or special in any way. This is difficult to understand. If the Torah explicitly praises Noach, why do Chazal minimize his greatness, and why do they specifically compare him to Avraham?

After Noach survived the Mabul,  he finally received permission to exit the ark and was given a promise that Hashem would never again destroy the world. Noach responded by planting a vineyard, getting drunk, and debasing himself. How could he have fallen so far so quickly?

The answer to these apparent contradictions lies in the Zohar HaKadosh, which questions why the haftarah (Yeshayah 54:9) refers to the flood as the floodwaters of Noach. Since Noach was the righteous tzaddik who was spared from the destruction, why is the flood named for him, implying that he was somehow responsible for it?

The Zohar answers that Hashem commanded Noach to make an ark to save him and his family from the impending flood. During the 120 years that Noach was busy doing so, he neglected to pray for his contemporaries to repent their sins and be spared and, as a result, he was held accountable for the flood that could have been prevented through his prayers.

The Zohar HaKadosh teaches us that although Noach was personally righteous, he was content with his own individual piety to save himself and his family without being properly concerned about the welfare of his contemporaries. The Midrash compares Noach to a captain who saves himself while allowing his boat and its passengers to drown. With this insight, we can now appreciate that Noach’s spiritual level was indeed complex and somewhat contradictory. He withstood the tremendous temptations to join the rest of his sinful generation and remained uniquely pious, yet at the same time he could have done much more on behalf of others.

This explains why he is specifically denigrated in comparison to Avraham, who was the paragon of chessed and whose entire life was focused on helping others. When Avraham was informed by Hashem about the impending destruction of Sedom, he didn’t content himself with the fact that he wasn’t endangered, but repeatedly beseeched Hashem to overturn the decree and spare them from destruction.

Still, although it is important to do acts of kindness for others, the Meshech Chochmah points out that one might assume that he nevertheless loses out in the process, as the time and energy that he dedicates to others come at the expense of investing them in his own growth and development. However, he quotes a Midrash (Bereishis Rabbah 36:3) that points out that precisely the opposite is, in fact, the case.

Although Noach is initially introduced as a perfectly righteous man, his lifelong focus on himself caused him to fall and be transformed into a man of the earth (9:20). In contrast, Moshe Rabbeinu, who dedicated his entire life to the welfare of others, was originally described (Shemos 2:19) as an Egyptian man who was forced into exile — but through his efforts on behalf of Klal Yisrael he elevated himself to the pinnacle of perfection and was called (Devarim 33:1) a man of G-d, teaching us that a person never loses out by doing chessed for others.

 

Q: In Parashas Bereishis, the Torah lists the 10 generations from Adam to Noach to Avraham and the years of their lives (5:3–32). A quick examination reveals that the average post-flood lifespan of the generations from Noach to Avraham listed in our parashah (11:10–26) was significantly shorter than that of the antediluvian generations. To what may this change be attributed?

 

A: The Rambam writes that even before the flood, the average lifespan was only 70 years, and those who are mentioned as living much longer were exceptions to the rule. The Ramban disagrees and maintains that these individuals weren’t exceptional, and all people prior to the flood had longer lifespans. After the flood, natural conditions were ,no longer as supportive to humans, which resulted in declining lifespans. The Seforno suggests that prior to the flood, there were no changes in the weather and in seasons, which allowed humans to remain much stronger. After the flood, unnatural changes in the earth and sun resulted in constantly changing weather conditions that left humans less healthy and shortened their lifespans.


 

Originally from Kansas City, Rabbi Ozer Alport graduated from Harvard, learned in Mir Yerushalayim for five years, and now lives in Brooklyn, where he learns in Yeshivas Beis Yosef, is the author of the recently-published sefer Parsha Potpourri, and gives weekly shiurim. To send comments to the author or to receive his Divrei Torah weekly, please email oalport@Hamodia.com.