Parashat Noah: Two stories and one promise

What caused Noah to merit being the only survivor from whom humanity would continue after the flood?

Water flows furiously at Samach River during heavy rains, on the Golan Heights in January.  (photo credit: MAOR KINSBURSKY/FLASH90)
Water flows furiously at Samach River during heavy rains, on the Golan Heights in January.
(photo credit: MAOR KINSBURSKY/FLASH90)
Parashat Noah is the second portion in the Torah. This parasha is named for its central character, the man who, along with his family, survived the great flood that destroyed all of humanity. What caused Noah to merit being the only survivor from whom humanity would continue after the flood? The answer to this is written right at the beginning of the story:
“These are the generations of Noah, Noah was a righteous man, he was perfect in his generations; Noah walked with God.” (Genesis 6, 9)
Noah was a very special person. So special, in fact, that the Torah writes something about him that was not written about any other character – not about Abraham, Isaac or Jacob, not about Moses or Aaron, not about David or Solomon. There is no other person about whom the Torah uses the adjective “righteous!” There have been many righteous people throughout history, but Noah is the only one who has that adjective written about him.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe discerned an important message from this distinction. Because Noah is not among those incredible people we just listed, therefore the Torah purposely mentions him as a righteous person. Noah, a man among men, a “regular” person, had the spirit of justice pulsing through his veins. He renounced his generation’s accepted norms of corruption and immorality, and managed to embark on his own path of righteousness and innocence. A man like this acts as a symbol and role model for us, a character to be imitated to a certain extent, even more than those incredible other characters. Therefore, it was important to label him as a righteous man.
But this parasha does not only tell us about Noah and his righteousness. The principle that someone, one person, had to be saved from the flood so that human existence could continue is an idea that stands on its own. Immediately as the parasha begins, just several verses after the complimentary description of Noah, we read God’s words to Noah in which he tells him about the imminent flood and of his intent to save him and his family from the flood by having them enter the ark:
“And God said to Noah, ‘The end of all flesh has come before Me, for the earth has become full of robbery because of them, and behold I am destroying them from the earth... And I will set up My covenant with you.” (ibid, 13-18)
AT THIS point, the reader can’t help but ask: When did God make a covenant with Noah; a covenant He now plans to honor? We haven’t read anything about this covenant until now.
Indeed, the commentators struggled with this question. Let us turn to the interesting explanation given by the Ralbag (Rabbi Levi ben Gershom, a commentator, philosopher and doctor, Provence 1288-1344) on this verse. According to the Ralbag, the covenant mentioned here was not with Noah, but with all of creation. When God completed creating the world, he made a covenant with the creation that would exist. God promised His handiwork that they would not be destroyed. This covenant, with all of creation, was what God intended to see through with Noah, the only person chosen to fulfil that ancient promise.
Therefore, Noah was chosen for being a “righteous man, he was perfect in his generations” and because he “walked with God.” But he was not saved from the flood just on his own merit, but also because God had committed to choosing someone, whoever it may be, so that humanity would be sustained after the flood.
This is the root of the repetitions we see again and again in the story of the flood. When we examine the story, we see that almost all parts of it are written twice. This is because the story of the flood contained two stories, already when it was actually happening. One is the story of the righteous person who bravely held on to his righteousness and innocence even in the face of a corrupt society. The second is the story of God keeping to His commitment that all of creation will be sustained.
These two motives for saving Noah are inferred nicely in the words of the Mishna:
“The world was created with 10 utterances. What does this come to teach us? Certainly, it could have been created with a single utterance. However, this is in order to make the wicked accountable for destroying a world that was created with 10 utterances, and to reward the righteous for sustaining a world that was created with 10 utterances.” (Chapters of the Fathers 5, 1)
The righteous are those who sustain the world. Noah, the righteous and perfect in his generation, was the one chosen to keep the Divine promise to sustain all of creation.
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.