Parashat Noah: Seeking the nation’s patriarch

What motivation would there be to use a derogatory phrase to describe Noah after the Torah had just praised him as righteous?

 DON’T BE ‘ah tzaddik in peltz.’  (photo credit: Charisse Kenion/Unsplash)
DON’T BE ‘ah tzaddik in peltz.’
(photo credit: Charisse Kenion/Unsplash)

This week’s Torah portion is named for the person at the center of the story of the flood described in the parasha: Noah. Who is this man who lived in such corrupt times that God had no choice but to flood the world with water and save only one man with his family – those from whom a new humanity would be formed after the flood? This is how he’s described in the first verse of the parasha:

Noah was a righteous man; he was perfect in his generations; Noah walked with God” (Noah 6:9).

“Noah was a righteous man; he was perfect in his generations; Noah walked with God”

Noah 6:9

Seemingly, this is an especially positive description: a righteous man, perfect... he worshiped God. But one phrase here caught the attention of the sages – “in his generation.” Simply put, it seems that Noah was a righteous man relative to others who lived in his generation. But why was it important to mention this? Isn’t it obvious when referring to a generation as corrupt as the generation of the flood? This is what Rashi says:

“In his generations: Some of our sages interpret it favorably: How much more so if he had lived in a generation of righteous people, he would have been even more righteous. Others interpret it derogatorily: In comparison with his generation, he was righteous, but if he had been in Abraham’s generation, he would not have been considered of any importance.” 

This midrash is surprising.

 SCRIBES FINISH writing a Torah scroll. (credit: DAVID COHEN/FLASH 90) SCRIBES FINISH writing a Torah scroll. (credit: DAVID COHEN/FLASH 90)

What motivation would there be to use a derogatory phrase to describe Noah after the Torah had just praised him as righteous?

It seems that the answer to this lies in the personality to which Noah is compared – Abraham. Abraham was chosen to be the patriarch of the Jewish nation. Why wasn’t Noah – the righteous and perfect – chosen for this purpose?

The Zohar describes a dialogue between Noah and God after the flood when Noah had left the ark, which had protected him while the world around him drowned. 

What did God answer Noah when he left the ark and saw the world destroyed? He [Noah] began to cry before God and he said, “Master of the universe, You are called compassionate. You should have been compassionate for Your creation.” God responded and said, “You are a foolish shepherd. Now you say this?! Why did you not say this at the time I told you that I saw that you were righteous among your generation, or afterward when I said that I will bring a flood upon the people, or afterward when I said to build an ark? I constantly delayed and I said, ‘When is he [Noah] going to ask for compassion for the world?’.... And now that the world is destroyed, you open your mouth, to cry in front of me, and to ask for supplication?” (Zohar, Noah)

This ancient source criticizes Noah for worrying about himself and not trying to prevent the flood. Based on this, we can understand the comparison with Abraham. Abraham also had an event in his life that can be compared with the flood. The people of Sodom sinned miserably against one another and God decided to destroy the city. 

Like He did with Noah and the flood, God here too revealed His plan in advance, this time to Abraham. But Abraham’s response was very different from Noah’s. He prayed to God and begged for the people of Sodom to be saved. 

There is a phrase in Yiddish – ah tzaddik in peltz, meaning a righteous person in a fur coat – that describes several people sitting in a room in bone-chilling cold. How do they cope with the cold? One person stands up and turns on the heater so that he gets warmer, and so do the other people in the room. But another person stands up and doesn’t turn on the heater, but rather he puts on a fur coat. He gets warmer but everyone else continues to freeze. 

Noah was not chosen to be the patriarch of the Jewish nation despite being a righteous person because he did not concern himself with saving the sinners of his generation. 

Even before the story of Sodom, we find Abraham spreading faith in the one God to the people of his generation. But we do not read about Noah doing anything of the sort. Noah truly was a righteous man, but he did not try to share his faith and save the corrupt and sinning people of his generation.

The person at the foundation of Judaism had to be one who is focused on the principle that he does not live in this world alone. He is also responsible for others to live correctly. Only such a person could be the patriarch of the nation.  ■

The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.