Parashat Noah: The end of a righteous person

When God informed Noah of the upcoming flood, he did not approach his peers and try to persuade them to improve their ways.

‘NOAH’S ARK on Mount Ararat’ (1570) by Flemish painter Simon de Myle. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
‘NOAH’S ARK on Mount Ararat’ (1570) by Flemish painter Simon de Myle.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The story of the Flood stands at the center of this week’s Torah portion, with Noah himself the central character. The story of the Flood begins when in ancient times, humanity had deteriorated to such moral lows that murder, rape and stealing became acceptable norms. Because of this, God decided to “restart” Creation by erasing the old world and starting afresh. However, God did not choose to recreate all of creation; He left remnants of humanity and of living creatures from which the new world would develop.
Noah was the man chosen to survive and the man from whom humanity would develop in its updated version. Why was Noah chosen for this mission? The answer is explained at the beginning of the parasha: “But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord” (Genesis 6:9).
Noah was the only person not swept away by the distorted norms. He stood as a fortress in the face of all of humanity and displayed loyalty to moral values. Due to this loyalty, he and his family were chosen to survive the Flood. God commanded him to build an ark that would protect him when the waters would flood the entire world, and Noah answered the call. For years, he toiled building the ark, and when the waters began flooding the earth, Noah and his family entered the ark and stayed in it until the flood was over and the earth had dried.
But Noah’s story does not end here. Surprisingly, the story of this character ends off-key. This is how the Torah describes Noah’s story after he exits the ark: “And Noah began to be a master of the soil, and he planted a vineyard. And he drank of the wine and became drunk, and he uncovered himself within his tent” (ibid. 9:20-21).
Then we read the description of how Noah degraded himself before his sons. One of his sons saw him naked and drunk, and according to some commentators, even committed an indecent act and therefore was cursed by his father with slavery.
How did Noah deteriorate from being a “righteous man” to being a drunken “master of the soil”? What led to such a demeaning and sad end to a righteous man?
This question perturbed the sages of the Midrash (Breishit Raba 36:3), who compared Noah to Moses and said: Moses was better liked than Noah. Noah was called “righteous man” and then “master of the soil,” but Moses was called “Egyptian” and then “man of God” (Deuteronomy 33:1). Is this midrash making a comparison between these two characters or does this comparison hint to an explanation of how and why Noah’s deterioration happened?
Rabbi Meir Simcha Hacohen of Dvinsk (commentator and Jewish legal authority, Latvia, 1843-1926) makes a suggestion in his book Meshech Hochma, an explanation of the midrash that helps us answer the question of what happened to Noah and how he went from being a righteous person to a master of the soil who demeans himself.
There are two ways of worshiping God, he explains. One is when a man is alone and he secludes himself with his faith and with his God. The other is when a person deals with public needs and gives his best to others. Noah was the first kind of righteous person.
When God informed him of the upcoming flood, he did not approach his peers and try to persuade them to improve their ways. He knew of the imminent calamity, and what did he do? He built an ark to save himself. He was indeed a righteous man, having withstood the corruption of his generation, but he was a righteous man who worried about himself.
As opposed to him, we are told already in the first story about him that Moses dedicated himself wholly to improving the lot of his brothers. He sees an Egyptian abusing a Jew and approaches to punish the Egyptian; he sees two Jews quarreling and gets involved to settle the dispute. Moses does not go into seclusion with his God and does not worry only about himself. He understands that “righteousness” is a trait that is expressed by his relationship with society.
This is the meaning of the comparison made by the sages of the Midrash, and through which they show us the ends of these two types of righteous men. Noah, who worried about himself, ultimately deteriorated into a “master of the soil” who was drunk and demeaned; Moses, who concerned himself with society around him, ultimately rose to become a “man of God.”
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.