The Noah of Genesis and the Noah of the Rabbis

Noah By :  Matthew Berkowitz Director of Israel Programs Posted On Oct 1, 2013 / 5774

Parashat Noah, the Torah reading for this coming Shabbat, is renowned for the annual debate on Noah’s character that is sparked by the opening verse. Immediately, we are introduced to the person of Noah, the man who will ultimately come to save humanity and give the world a second chance. We are told, “Noah was a righteous man (tzadik); he was blameless (tamim) in his age; Noah walked with God” (Gen. 6:9). While, at first glance, the reader interprets this verse as complimentary of Noah, a deeper and slower reading yields a more nuanced interpretation. What is the import of “in his age”? Commentators triggered by Tractate Sanhedrin 108a argue that this qualification may be read to his detriment; for had Noah lived in the age of Abraham, perhaps he would have been mediocre at best. Must we understand these three words, “in his age,” as taking our hero down a few notches?

Professor Ze’ev Falk (z”l) argues that we must give Noah the proverbial benefit of the doubt. Although Falk acknowledges that the opening verse may be read either in praise or in criticism of Noah, he chooses to side with the former. Professor Falk explains that the critique of our protagonist is rightly deserved and most likely derives from the fact that Noah seemingly does nothing to alert his fellow humans to their imminent destruction. Some have even gone so far as to dub Noah a “tzadik in a fur coat,” that is to say, he tends to his own needs but cares less for others. Falk, however, argues that the fact that Noah does not save his generation is not necessarily a reason to diminish his character. After all, Deuteronomy uses the same adjective to describe God (tamim [blameless]), and God does not seek to save a “crooked and perverse generation” (Deut. 32:5). Therefore, Falk writes that “Noah is similar to God” in this respect.

The question of Noah’s goodness then is complex and multivalent. I am comforted by the rabbinic imagination, which imagines Noah not only building the Ark, but also planting the trees from which the cedar wood would come. The midrash paints a portrait of trees growing over a long period of time and then Noah building the Ark. Passersby question Noah, and he replies to each individual that “God is about to destroy the world,” thereby giving his generation a chance to repent (something that is completely absent in the text). The Rabbis themselves could not imagine that one described as a tzadik and tamim would not be active in saving others from imminent punishment. It is this message that each of us must take to heart. To be blameless and righteous is to care not just about one’s self, but about the “other” as well. May we emulate both the Noah of Genesis and the Noah of the Rabbis.

The publication and distribution of A Taste of Torah are made possible by a generous grant from Sam and Marilee Susi.