Parashat Noah: ‘A man of little faith’

“And he called his name Noah, saying, ‘This one shall comfort us from our work and from the anguished toil of our hands...’” (Genesis 5:29).

Noah is the towering but complex personality who dominates this week’s biblical portion.
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 divine encounters.”
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 Bereishit, 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 God.
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, Gen. 5:29).
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 isolated technologist.
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. 7:7).
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 ways.
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.