This week we read about the Mabul, the Great Flood that Hashem brought upon the world- ‘for all flesh has corrupted its way on the land.’ Seeing that the world had become totally immoral, Hashem decided to destroy almost all animals and plants- and the entire human race. The entire race, that is, except for one righteous person and his family:
…And Noach was a righteous man, complete in his generations; Noach walked with God.
Noach was commanded to build an ark- a big wooden ship- that would miraculously hold thousands of animals, as well as plants, refuse, and he and his family. The project was a purposely lengthy one*; this would give the general populace time to inquire about the ongoing construction- and to repent when they would realize how low they had sunk. Tragically, people paid no attention and were destroyed. Mankind would begin again from Noach’s family.
How are we to understand Noach? Was he truly a great man in his own right, or was he just the ‘best person available for the job’ of saving the human race and rebuilding Earth? Alternatively, what exactly does the Torah mean when calling Noach ‘righteous’ and ‘whole’?
The Talmud (Gemara Avodah Zarah) teaches that words “tzaddik” (‘righteous’) and “tamim” (‘complete’) are to be read as two separate descriptions, each a praise of a different attribute:
tzaddik : In action
tamim : In his ways
-While it is clear enough what is meant by a person being righteous in deed, the second term, ‘complete in his ways’ still needs some definition.
Ramban- here and in Parashat Lech Lecha- explains the verse that praises Noach. To paraphrase:
‘Righteous’: This refers to the idea that Noach was ‘exonerated’, found innocent, in judgment. He deserved to be saved from the Mabul. As for the rest of his family, either they were saved in his merit (because it would be a punishment for Noach if they were to die) or they also deserved to be saved- Noach, though, was still more righteous than them.
‘Complete’: This refers to simple faith in God- even in the face of others’ mocking and the predictions of sorcerers and astrologers. A person so described is fulfilling the verse,
Be complete (faithful) with Hashem your God.
-So Noach (with his family) really did deserve to be spared from the Mabul on his own merit. He was one completely righteous man in an era of total spiritual devastation. And yet… it’s not so simple. Noach was great, but was he as righteous as someone like Avraham Avinu, who came 10 generations later? In truth, the answer depends on how to interpret the same verse that we have been discussing…
These are the children of Noach- Noach was a righteous man; he was complete in his generations-Noach walked with God.
[What is meant by Noach being complete in his generations?]
‘…In his generations’:
Some of our Rabbis interpret this as praise, and some of our Rabbis interpret this as derogatory.
Those who interpret it as praise:
Even in his generations he was righteous; had he lived in the time of Avrhaham Avinu (without the negative influences of a corrupted world, and with the positive influence of Avraham), all the more so would he have been righteous!
And those who interpret it as derogatory:
‘In his generations (only in comparison to the people of his time) he was righteous- but had he been in the generation of Avraham, he would not have been considered anything!
-Midrash, as abridged by Rashi
-Interesting. Look at the Midrash Rabbah itself, and you’ll see that the dispute here is between Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Nechemya. This is especially significant, as another argument between these same two Rabbis appears just a few lines later. They argue, it turns out, about how to read yet another phrase of this verse:
Noach walked with God.
Rabbi Yehuda again compares Noach to Avraham Avinu. Whereas Hashem would one day tell Avraham,
‘…Walk before Me and be complete’
– Lech Lecha, 17:1,
implying that Avraham was capable of walking ‘in front of Hashem’, Noach was only said to have walked with Hashem; Avraham was strong enough spiritually to proactively serve God and to convince people to believe in Him, while Noach ‘needed support to help him’. (See the emails Avraham: Walking Kindness-1 & 2; 2014).
According to Rabbi Nechemya, however, Noach was not ‘weaker’ or ‘smaller’ than Avraham inherently. Rather, their circumstances differed. Noach can be compared to a subject of the king who is trying to walk but is stuck in the mud. Although the king would not usually dirty himself-but rather maintain his regal bearing as much as possible- he has no choice but to help his faithful subject, and pulls him out. So too, Hashem saw that the generation in which Noach lived made it impossible for Noach to walk on his own. Therefore, Hashem allowed Noach to ‘walk with Him’- that is, to serve Him in solitude without involvement with the outside world- because Noach had no choice if he wanted to avoid being negatively influenced himself.
Commentators explain that the debate on how to understand Noach’s walking ‘with Hashem’ stems from the same argument about how to understand ‘in his generations’; Rabbi Yehuda maintains in both instances that Noach was of a much lower level than Avraham. Rabbi Nechemya asserts in both instances that Noach’s approach was due to circumstances beyond his control- and that had he lived in a more righteous generation, he would have been able to become greater spiritually.
Let’s try to continue this conversation next week.
Have a great Shabbat!
*Amazingly, the project actually took 120 years to complete (don’t forget, people lived a lot longer back then than today).
Elli Schwarcz is an alumnus of the Toras Moshe, Ner Israel, and Carteret Yeshivos, and has been involved in Jewish outreach for almost 15 years. He is a Hebrew School and English Language Arts teacher, and has a Master’s Degree in Counseling from Johns Hopkins University. Of all his pursuits, Elli most enjoys teaching high-level Jewish thought and Talmud to teenage boys, exposing them to the beauty and wisdom of their heritage while highlighting their own ability to engage in advanced Torah learning. Elli lives in Lakewood, New Jersey, with his wife and children.