The Quest for Righteousness

Noah By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Oct 16, 1993 / 5754 | Torah Commentary

How quickly does God’s joy in creation turn to regret! In the space of a single parasha, in a matter of ten generations, humanity taints the earth with violence, turning paradise into perdition. To quote Milton’s incomparable epic of Paradise Lost:

O shame to men! Devil with Devil damn’d Firm concord holds, men only disagree Of creatures rational, though under hope Of heavenly Grace; and God proclaiming peace, Yet live in hatred, enmity, and strife Among themselves, and levy cruel wars, Wasting the Earth, each other to destroy.

God’s decision to destroy civilization is a measure of its decadence and God’s despair. The continuity of human life hangs by a thread, the favor one man still finds in God’s eyes.

But what kind of man is No·ah? The Torah describes him tersely. “No·ah was a righteous man; he was blameless in his age.” (6:9) The midrash, which doesn’t miss a nuance, is puzzled by the force of the additional word ” bedorotav – in his age.” Does it enhance or detract from No·ah’s praise. And, as you might imagine, there are two views. The first suggests that indeed the word comes to limit. No·ah’s righteousness surpassed that of his neighbors, but would hardly have matched that of Moses or Samuel. Given the surroundings, it did not take a large dose of righteousness to stand out.

The opposing view holds that the word enlarges on No·ah’s praise. If he could manage to be a good man in a wholly unsupportive setting, how much more noble and distinguished would his deportment have been in a community of like-minded people.

Having grown up in a small town without benefit of the resources of a large Jewish community, I readily identify with the second view. The ultimate criterion is not the level of accomplishment, but the effort required to accomplish anything. It is so much easier to be Jewish in New York than somewhere out in middle America. The lifeline of a strong support system offsets the undertow of assimilation. No·ah’s virtue was that he preserved a measure of decency in an indecent society, alone and by virtue of constant exertion. This is what caught God’s attention and may even have prompted the rabbis to formulate the following lenient and magnanimous halakhic principle: “Whosoever performs a single commandment, it shall go well with him, and his days shall be prolonged, and he shall inherit the Land (Mishnah Kiddushin 1:10).” Difficult circumstances are no excuse for abandoning everything. The effort and commitment it takes to preserve a small corner of Judaism does not go unrewarded.

In fact, the Torah implies that No·ah was not exactly a paragon of virtue. We are given just enough evidence to see his flaws. I refer to his consistent silence throughout the harrowing flood. Unlike Abraham, he does not raise his voice in protest at the prospect of a global calamity. Abraham challenged God long and hard over the fate of but two cities. No·ah does little more than meekly heed God’s warning to save himself.

Nor do we hear No·ah’s voice after the devastation has been wrought. True, he hastens to build an alter and offer what may have been a grateful sacrifice of thanksgiving. But we yearn to catch a glimpse of human anguish or numbness at the sight of such vast destruction. Is this perhaps the reason that the first thing which No·ah plants after the flood is a vineyard to escape the horror? The focus of the text is exclusively God’s remorse and not No·ah’s anger.

The omission begs for midrash and the Zohar, the classic work of medieval Jewish mysticism, obliges us with a spark of religious genius.

When No·ah came out of the ark he opened his eyes and saw the whole world completely destroyed. He began crying for the world and said: “Master of the World! If you destroyed Your world because of human sin or human fools, then why did You create them? One or the other You should do: either do not create the human being or do not destroy the world!…”
The Blessed Holy One answered him, “Foolish shepherd! Now you say this, but not when I spoke to you tenderly, saying: `Make yourself an ark of gopher wood…’ I lingered with you and spoke to you at length so that you would ask for mercy for the world! But as soon as you heard that you would be safe in the ark, the evil of the world did not touch your heart. You built the ark and saved yourself. Now that the world has been destroyed, you open your mouth to utter questions and pleas?” (translated by Daniel Chanan Matt)

Despite the blemish, God rescued No·ah, because righteousness is not moral perfection, but the intense and obsessive quest for it.

Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,

Ismar Schorsch


The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat No·ah are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.