Noach, the central figure of this week’s parshah, is a bit of a conundrum. On one hand, he is described as ‘a righteous man, blameless in his generation’ (Gen. 6: 9), but on the other hand, when told by God that every living thing on earth is about to be wiped out in a huge flood, he doesn’t turn a hair. He doesn’t protest – as Abraham does later on, when told by God of the impending destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah – and he doesn’t rush off and warn his contemporaries. In fact, he doesn’t say anything at all to anyone until he comes out with a curse against his grandson Canaan and a blessing for his sons Shem and Japhet. For most of the parshah he silently obeys God’s commands, but shows no reaction and no initiative.
The rabbis of the midrash were aware of Noah’s shortcomings, and interpreted the phrase ‘blameless in his generation’ to mean that, in any other generation – such as that of Abraham – he wouldn’t have been considered particularly virtuous (Midrash Tanchuma, Noach: 5). He, so the rabbis, is not a bad person, but he has a certain passive quality that holds him back from true greatness.
Another midrash (Tanchuma, Noach: 14) compare Noach and Abraham as follows: Noach invents agriculture, cursing, slavery, and drunkenness – one positive and three negative. Abraham is responsible for old age, suffering, hospitality and inheritance – three positives (depending on how you view old age!) and one negative. There seems to be a continuum here, from the negative pole , through to the positive pole of Abraham.
Thus the rabbis see Noach as someone with potential, but limited by a lack of maturity, independence, and imagination. Abraham represents the next stage in the long, slow process of perfecting oneself: he is more active, more questioning, more likely to take the initiative and act, whether in welcoming strangers, defending sinners, or rescuing those in trouble, but not perfect, as we can read in a short while, when he is willing to sacrifice his own son.
We can learn something from both these figures, and in particular, can resolve to move on from our Noach-level to a more engaged and energetic Abraham-level.
Rabbi Adrian M Schell (Source: Lindsey Taylor-Guthartz)
Torah Reading Shabbat Noach—Rosh Chodesh Cheshvan (01 Cheshvan 5778)
Genesis 6:9-11:32, Reading: Gen 7:22-8:22, Plaut p.61; Hertz p.29
Haftarah: Isaiah 66:1-13, 23 (Rosh Chodesh), Plaut p.1492; Hertz p.944
- * God decides to cause a flood that will destroy the world, sparing only Noah’s family and the animals that Noah gathers together on the ark. (6:9-8:22)
- * Life starts over again after the Flood. The Noahide Commandments are listed, and God uses a rainbow to make a symbol of the first covenant. (9:1-17)
- * People start to build a city and the Tower of Babel. God scatters the people and gives them different languages to speak. (11:1-9)
- * The ten generations from Noah to Abram are listed. (11:10-29:2)