Biblical characters are not always straightforward.
On the surface, nothing could be more straightforward than the introduction we are given to Noach.
Noach was a tzadik (righteous person), wholesome within his generation.
Noach is presented as a tzadik, ‘a righteous person’, who is Tamim, ‘complete’. But there is a curious qualification to that complimentary introduction. He is ‘wholesome within his generation.’ This additional detail creates significant confusion among the commentaries:
Some of our sages read it as a compliment: He managed to stay righteous even ‘in his generation’ – i.e. despite being surrounded by evildoers. In a generation surrounded by greatness, how much more righteous would he have been!
Others read it negatively: by his generation’s lowly standard he was ‘righteous’ but had he lived in the generation of Abraham, he would have seemed quite ordinary.
Rashi, Genesis 6:9.
The fact that the Torah can be read in different ways is not in itself troubling. If Torah is the Will of an Infinite Being, then it is reasonable to expect that the text has layers upon layers of meaning, and that multiple readings of the same text can yield yet more of God’s Will. But what is questionable is how the very same words can allude to two opposite meanings? Does the Torah want to convey the greatness of Noach? Or does it wish to detract from that greatness? And if one of those is the true intention of the Torah, then why write it in a way that could imply the opposite meaning?
Or, perhaps we can suggest that the Torah actually intends both - to increase the compliment, and to simultaneously decrease it… it is this thesis that we will explore.
Noach is righteous enough to save himself, his family, and humanity. But he is not able to save others. He is able to keep a thread of humanity alive in a broken world, but he is not able to repair that world, nor to initiate a process that might do so. The failure of the latter need not detract from the greatness of the former. Noach was incredible at being a moral rock in a world that was immoral.
Moral thinking is something that happens in groups. We may not be aware of it, but a human brain has many moral triggers within it. They are designed to help us make the right decision in situations that require instant instinctive responses. One of those is that we learn at a young age to trust received wisdom. The trust we place in others has enormous benefits. It allows us to build on their knowledge rather than have to relearn it. But it also means that where societies’ values are corrupt, individual brains struggle hard to resist those values.
Noach’s generation is described as lacking respect for the boundaries of one another. It lacked boundaries in human relationships, and it lacked respect for the property and being of others. In such a world hordes and clans looked out for themselves, moralising their own needs and de-humanising others.
Noach had the depth of character to reject what was the norm. That made him a social outcast. It requires immense moral courage to be willing to be mocked for unpopular beliefs. Every society coerces conformity on one way or another, be it through threat of punishment in dictatorial regimes, or through the ‘cancel culture’ in our day. To stand totally alone requires super-human courage, and deep moral conviction. Noach had all of this; he deserves the title ‘tzadik’ and deserves the qualification ‘he was wholesome even in his generation.’
But moral fortitude is one thing. Moral leadership is another. Whilst Noach’s courage is incredible, his inability to redeem even one other person is equally telling. Moral people resist society. Moral leaders persuade society. Noach accomplished one without the other.
In this regard, the Rabbis compare him unfavourably to Avraham.
‘Noach walked with God’ (6:9)
Yet with Avraham, [God] says: ‘walk before me’ (17:1). Noach required support, but Avraham would strengthen himself, and initiate his own righteousness.
Genesis 6:9 and Rashi.
Indeed, the instruction God gives Noach to build the ark, is one of the lengthiest monologues of the Torah, taking up a full 8 verses. Noach’s response: ‘Noach did exactly as God commanded him.’ No more and no less. Again, God gives him instructions, telling Noach to enter the Ark. This time it takes 4 verses. Again we are told: ‘Noach did exactly as Hashem commanded him…’
His response was not to reach out to his generation, nor even to pray for them. Doing what God said is fantastic; it makes him a tzaddik. But it is not enough. The world requires us to do more. It requires us to take the initiative. Not to wait to find out the word of God, but to ask ourselves what Hashem might want beyond the written instruction.
Noach’s very name connotes standing still. Avram begins life named as a ‘father’ of ‘Aram’ – they are his people, his tribe. A father initiates, creates, and redefines the society around him. He is not defined by them, but instead defines them. But Avraham, and his wife Sarah, dedicate their lives to growing ‘before’ God, and to bringing others with them. Their journey takes them to heights so great, they end up outgrowing their very names that allude to their growth and their greatness. No longer does he merely transform local society, but now his mission – to be carried on by their descendants, is to become a ‘father’, an initiator of change ‘for the multitude of nations’.
So, it turns out that the ambiguity built into the opening line of the Sidra really can teach us two meanings, and they are not contradictory after all.
From the introduction of Noach and his greatness, the Torah offers a qualification that puts us on alert to view him through two lenses. We must study Noach and learn from him how to find the word of God in a cacophony of self-centered noises, all claiming moral high ground in the name of the desire to erase all boundaries. We must learn how to build our own ark, to resist the tidal waves that bring with them the undoing of society.
Yet we must also realise, when learning Noach, that what we are studying is just a start. It will not be enough. Our lives are not meant to be used just finding moral anchors and building arks, crucial though those may be. The Torah teaches us Noach as a critical stepping stone. But from the word go, we have the hint that after learning about Noach, we will also learn another life mission: how to live lives that will bring about the radical transformation, healing and repair of the world beyond the walls of our ark.
 Emile Durkheim, the father of modern sociology, put forward the thesis of the ‘collective conscience’ in his 1893 work ‘the Division of Labour in a Society’. Since then there has been a burgeoning field of work in psychology and sociology on the extent to which we form both moral attitudes and social norms as groups rather than isolated individuals.
 Genesis 6:11; Talmud, Sanhedrin 57a
 Gensis ibid.; Midrash Rabba 28:8
 See eg. Midrash Rabba 32:8
 Genesis 2:22
 Ibid. 2:1-4
 Ibid. 2:5
 See Genesis 5:29 that he was called ‘Noach’ because of the prophecy that he would bring ‘rest’ or ‘comfort’ from pain. Rashi (ad loc.) suggests that the prophecy was fulfilled by the mass employment of the plough, thus limiting the curse of the need for hard labour.
 Genesis 17:5, 17:15
 Ibid. 17:4. Thus, ‘Avram’ and ‘Sarai’ become ‘Avraham and Sarah’.
- October 21st 2020