Noah is one of the Torah’s anti-heroes. While he is justly famous as the builder of the ark and the world’s first (literal) conservationist, the Jewish tradition is ambivalent and even hostile to Noah. This is partly rooted in his self-destructive behavior in the years after the flood, but our rabbis also are critical of how Noah responds to the announcement of the pending flood — in particular, his silence.
The Torah’s description starts out on an apparently positive note: “Noah was a righteous man; he was blameless in his age; Noah walked with God” (Genesis 6:9). Older translations read: “Noah was in his generations a man righteous and whole-hearted …” (Jewish Publication Society 1917).
The commentators dispute as to whether the statement that Noah was praiseworthy “in his generation” is positive or negative. Do we approve of Noah because he did the best he could in the difficult circumstances of his generation? Or do we hold him to a different standard; by our expectations of what is right and responsible, he may have done OK in his time, but compared to what we expect, it wasn’t much.
We ask this question of figures again and again. Do we honor someone for being forward-thinking for their time and culture (“enlightened slave holder” or “proto-feminist”), or express our disappointment in what they did not do or say?
What’s our problem with Noah? He is silent. He does not speak out — either to people or to God. Noah follows instructions, takes care of his family, executes his business plan — but never, in the Torah’s text, does he say a word to anyone or back to God.
Noah’s world, it seems, is entirely self-contained. Taking care of his needs and those of his family, he is cut off from the wider society. (Is this what kept him tamim, “wholly innocent,” or, in other translations, “pure” or “unblemished” — because he was so withdrawn?)
In contrast to Noah, Abraham is out there, engaged, lobbying and promoting. When God informs Abraham of the plan to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham speaks right up! He challenges God about the justice of the decree for Sodom and Gomorrah and goes looking to find the righteous individuals in the cities. Earlier, the Midrash teaches, Abraham and Sarah set about to teach and convert the citizens of their hometown, Haran (Genesis Rabbah 39:14).
Noah, our portion teaches, “walked with God” (Gen. 6:9), while Abraham, in contrast, walked “before God” (17:1). Some modern commentators suggest that this reflects a transformation in human responsibility and expectation. Noah goes along, doing as he is asked, but God does not consult him and he does not speak out. By the time of Abraham, humanity is a partner with God, who now asks: “Shall I hide from Abraham what I intend to do?” The Midrash describes Abraham as “the friend who walks in front, carrying a lamp and illuminating the way.”
Although he is never so designated, Abraham is the model of a Hebrew prophet. The prophet is the individual who is able to see beyond or outside the values and expectations of the moment and imagine the world differently.
Noah heard about the coming destruction and responded, yet his response was limited to the work of rescue and recovery. He did not have either the vision or the courage to speak up and try to change the course of events. Abraham “lifts up his eyes” and sees what others do not; he has the capacity to imagine the world differently than the culture around him and what others expect. He speaks out, challenging God’s initial decree and actively seeking to transform the world as he sees it.
Rabbi Nehemiah taught that it was praiseworthy to say of Noah that he was “righteous in his generation.” In a dysfunctional world, we should celebrate and honor those who have the courage to do what they can, not castigate them for what they don’t!
Throughout our lives, we are challenged to respond to situations. Sometimes all we can ask of ourselves is to do as Noah did — to take care of that which is most precious, withdraw from further engagement and hope there will be a new start. At other times, we may be called to find the prophetic courage of Abraham, imagining what has not been said before and creating new possibilities for heaven and earth.
Rabbi Yoel Kahn is the senior rabbi at Reform Congregation Beth El of Berkeley. He can be reached at email@example.com.