Commentary for Noach

28 Oct

This week’s parshah starts with the story of Noah, and ends with the beginning of the story of Abraham. These two men were in very similar situations: Noah is the head of the lone God-fearing family in his age, and Abraham is the first monotheist of his time, and head of the lone family that believe in the one true God. In fact, after the Flood, when Noah’s family is the only family around, every living person in the world believed in the one true God and no other. It seems like a perfect time to start the Jewish People. Why, then, does God only give the Noachide laws (which must be followed by Jews and non-Jews alike) instead of starting to give laws that only apply to Jews? For what reason did God decide that Abraham should be the founder of the Jewish People instead of Noah?

The Gemara (Sanhedrin 108a) records a well-known debate that calls the level of Noah’s righteousness into question. The opening verse of the parshah describes Noah as “a righteous man, perfect in his generation; Noah walked with God (Gen. 6:9).” The rabbis focus on the seemingly extraneous phrase “in his generation,” and seek to learn what it is meant to teach us. Reish Lakish argues that this teaches us that if Noah was able to be righteous and perfect in his generation, which was full of sinners, how much more righteous would he have been able to be in another generation, with more positive influences around him. Rabbi Yochanan, on the other hand, interprets this phrase to mean that in a generation full of sinners, Noah was righteous enough to be considered “perfect” for the purpose God wanted him for (restarting the human race from people with a good moral grounding), but in a generation that wasn’t full of such horrible people, he would not have stood out for his righteousness the way that others have. Rashi specifically brings Abraham up as a comparison and interprets the phrase “Noah walked with God” to mean that Noah needed God’s help to overcome his evil inclination, whereas Abraham was able to do so on his own.

There is a bit in Bill Cosby’s “Noah” routine where one of Noah’s neighbors spots the ark and asks, “what’s this thing for, anyway?” to which Noah replies, “I can’t tell you. Hahahahaha!” The neighbor then asks, “can’t you give me a little hint?” to which Noah responds “how long can your tread water? Hahaha!”

While there is no textual basis for this or any similar exchange, there is a quote from Isaiah in which the prophet describes the Flood in its destructive capacity as “the waters of Noah (54:9).” Over the centuries, many wondered why the waters that killed everyone else would be referred to as “the waters of Noah.” The Zohar answers this question by comparing Noah and Abraham. Upon learning that God was planning to wipe out the rest of humanity, but that he and his family would be saved, Noah set to work building the ark. Upon learning that God planned to wipe out the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham immediately started to bargain with God and try to convince God to not destroy them (as recounted in Gen. 18).

While Noah thought only of himself and his family, Abraham thought of everyone. It is not enough to be righteous ourselves. We must do what we can to help others be righteous as well, whether by creating opportunities like tzedakah campaigns or food drives which make giving charity easier for others, or simply by setting good examples of yiddishkeit as we go about our daily lives. As the Gemara reminds us more than once: we are all responsible for one another.

%d bloggers like this: