Noah is the towering but complex personality who dominates this week’s biblical
On the one hand, he is a “man of righteousness, wholehearted in
his generation; Noah walked with God” (Genesis 6:9). Indeed, he is so pious in
the eyes of God that he alone (with his immediate family) is deemed worthy of
surviving the deluge brought upon the world as the consequence of human
perversion and violent conduct. Nevertheless, the very same individual becomes
drunk toward the end of his life and fails to emerge as one of the patriarchs of
the burgeoning Hebrew nation.
Where and why does Noah not quite “make
it”? Names are very significant in describing – and perhaps even foretelling –
the characteristics of biblical personalities.
Abram, the exalted father,
becomes Abraham, the “father of a multitude of nations,” and Jacob, the
“heel-sneak,” is transformed into Israel, the “one who will enable God to
triumph,” or “the individual who has emerged triumphant from both human and
Let us explore Noah’s name and how it – and he –
played out in his lifetime.
At the end of last week’s biblical reading of
, we read how Methuselah was a descendant of Adam from the lineage of
Seth, and he “begat” Lamech, who in turn “begat” Noah; and Noah received his
name because “this one shall comfort us (yenahamenu
) from our work and from the
anguished toil of our hands, extracting produce from the earth which the Lord
had cursed” (Gen. 5:29).
The classical commentary Rashi immediately
points out that according to the biblical explanation, he should have been named
Menahem, the one who will give comfort. He would have fulfilled the role of a
second Adam who would guide humanity out of its exile and back to Eden. This
would also provide a most apt play on words, contrasting with the idea that God
will soon “regret (vayinahem
) that he ever made the human being on earth” due to
mankind’s rampant immorality (Gen. 6:6).
Noah would be the antidote and
comfort for God’s discomfiture with His human creation.
However, this is
not quite how things work out. Noah
means “ease” or “comfort” (nohiut
, a place
for rest and refreshment) rather than the comfort (nehama
) that comes from
making up for a human loss or for a human failing by giving those who have
fallen the strength and courage to rise once again.
This was the biblical
hope for Noah, that he would teach the new world the importance of being
righteous, and that through compassionate righteousness and moral justice, the
exile would end and the world would be perfected in the kingship of
But Noah was somehow unequipped to give over this message. He could
not assume the role suggested by his name Menahem (comforter). He was never a
people person, given to inspire others with the desire to do what was righteous
and good. In his own conduct, he always acted properly; but when God told him to
build an ark to save his family from an impending flood, he neither remonstrated
with God to save the world, nor did he remonstrate with the people to change
their evil ways. All he could do and be was Noah, to make life easier and more
comfortable through technology.
And so explains Rashi, in his commentary
on the verse that gives Noah his name, says: “Until Noah came into the world,
there were no implements such as the plow, which Noah fashioned for them. Until
then, when the people planted wheat [with their hands], the earth would bring
forth thorns and thistles as a result of God’s curse of Adam. In the days of
Noah, the farmers were able to take it easier [because of the plow]” (Rashi,
Noah was not a rabbi comforter, spurring humanity on to
perfect itself; he was rather Dr. Take-It-Easy, inventing the technology to help
people relax. He should have been an outreach preacher, but instead he became an
Perhaps he lacked the self-confidence and the
profound faith in God’s message to enable him to charismatically reach out to
others. When the biblical text hints that he entered the ark only “because of
the waters of the deluge,” that he waited until the flood made it impossible for
him to live in his home before he went into the ark, Rashi calls Noah a “man of
little faith” – God’s word alone was not sufficient for him (Rashi on Gen.
Perhaps this is what the Bible is hinting at when our sacred text
records Noah’s drunkenness.
Only an individual who doesn’t believe in
himself and in the divine within him would require external stimuli such as
alcohol or drugs to give him the “high” rather than developing his own inner
powers and strengths.
Whatever the reason, clearly Noah was not on the
same level as Abraham, the man who “walked before God” to prepare the way and
reached out to “make souls” inspired to emulate God’s righteous
That’s why Abraham is considered the first Hebrew and not
Noah.Rabbi Riskin is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone
Colleges and Graduate Programs and chief rabbi of Efrat.