Parashat Noach 5779
Rabbi Daniela Szuster
Noah and Abraham and their different reactions to a similar decree from God
This week’s parashat, which deals with the well known story of Noah, begins by saying:
“This is the line of Noah. Noah was a righteous man; he was blameless in his age; Noah walked with God. “ (Bereshit 6:9)
What does it mean that Noah was righteous “in his generation”? Why does the text include these words? You can understand the text without it. What does the text want to express?
There is a Midrash that deals with this question:
“What is the meaning of IN HIS GENERATION? Some interpret the phrase to his praise, and some interpret it to his shame, i.e., IN HIS GENERATIONS but not in other generations.
A parable: To what is the matter comparable? If one should put a silver coin among [a hundred] coins of copper, the one of silver would seem beautiful. Thus, did Noah seem righteous in the generation of the flood.
Then, how do some interpret it to his praise? The situation is like a jar of balsam which was put in a tomb where its aroma was good. If it had been in a house, how much better would its aroma have been!” (Midrash Tanhuma Buber Parashat Noach 5).
According to this Midrash, you may understand the phrase “in his generation” from our verse in two different ways:
1) That he was considered righteous but only comparing him to the wicked people of his generation. He was a little bit better than the others but not a really righteous person. In a more respectable age, he would have been no better than average.
2) If he was a righteous person in a very bad and immoral society, he would have been even better in a more righteous society.
One emphasizes the power of society to shape the behavior of its members; the other champions the power of the individual to resist the pressures of society.
Many sages compare Noah and Abraham, trying to figure out who was more righteous.
The Zohar finds a big difference between Noah and Abraham in their behaviors when both faced a similar situation, after God shared with them a decree against humankind.
God said to Noah, “I have decided to put an end to all flesh, for the earth is filled with lawlessness because of them: I am about to destroy them with the earth.” (Bereshit 6:13)
God said to Abraham, “The outrage of Sodom and Gomorrah is so great, and their sin so grave! I will go down to see whether they have acted altogether according to the outcry that has reached Me; if not, I will take note.” (Bereshit 18:20-21)
The Zohar compares Noah and Abraham’s answers to God’s decree to each of them:
“Abraham came forward and said, “Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty? (Bereshit 18:23) – said Rabbi Yehudah: who hath seen a father as compassionate as Abraham? Come and see: regarding Noah it is stated “God said to Noah, “I have decided to put an end to all flesh, for the earth is filled with lawlessness because of them: I am about to destroy them with the earth” (Bereshit 6:13). And Noah held his peace and said naught, neither did he intercede.
Consider Abraham: as soon as the Holy One, blessed be He, said to him: “The outrage of Sodom and Gomorrah is so great, and their sin so grave! I will go down to see…” (Bereshit 18:20-21), Abraham immediately said: “Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty? (Bereshit 18:23)” (Zohar 106a).
Noah listened to God’s decree and didn’t do anything. He just obeyed. He didn’t try to change God’s mind and stop Him. He didn’t feel the responsibility to do something for his society. He built the ark and saved himself, his family, and the animals as God asked him.
On the other hand, Abraham complained, criticized God’s decision and tried to save the people of Sodom and Gomorra and avoid the destruction.
We have here two different reactions to a similar decree. Noah was righteous in his generation but Abraham, in every generation.
What can we learn from these sources? That there are many ways to be a righteous person. You can be righteous in an immoral society or in a just society.
Our society has a big influence on our lives and the ways we behave. Sometimes it is difficult to behave in a different way. Noah made a difference in his society. It is not easy to be righteous in a society of wicked people.
On the other hand, it is true that Noah’s behavior was not enough to help others in his society because he saved only himself and his family. Abraham’s behavior is more valued because he tried to do something for his society by altering God’s decision.
I believe that even if Abraham’s behavior is more valued we should appreciate Noah’s behavior, because he tried to be a mentch, a good person, in a society where the majority were wicked people.
So, we may learn from Abraham and also from Noah’s behavior.