Here’s a question for you: What was Noah thinking during the time it took him to build the ark? He had received a clear call from God that all of humanity would die in the flood, save his extended family and animals from every species. Was he dumbstruck? Enraged? Terrified? Why do we not hear from him a word of protest against God’s decision to destroy the world?
This question arises from the millennia-old debate among biblical commentators about the character of Noah, the leader of his generation. The discussion begins with the first verse of the portion: “… Noah was a righteous man, whole-hearted in his generation. Noah walked with God.” (Genesis 6:9) Many commentators have contrasted this description with a text in which God uses the same adjective, tamim (whole-hearted) to describe Abraham, saying, “Walk before Me and be whole-hearted.” (Genesis 17:1)
How are we to understand the contrast between Noah, who walked with God, and Abraham, who walked before God? Rashi, following the classical midrash, suggests that Noah needed divine support (God “walking” beside him), while Abraham’s strength came from within, so that he could walk “ahead” of God. The commentators have in mind Abraham’s courage (chutzpah, if you will) in challenging God’s decision to destroy the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, famously calling God to task for failing to live up to God’s own standards of justice.
The Chassidic commentators, translating the teaching of this text into their own historical context, reflect on the qualities of different tzaddikim (righteous ones), the leaders of their communities. According to Rebbe Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, some leaders, like Abraham, have the power to overturn God’s harsh decrees, evoking divine mercy with their prayer. Other leaders, like Noah, can only respond to events as they happen.
Rabbi Moses Alshech, a 16th century kabbalist, writes that Noah was the kind of leader who was personally close to God, but whose special relationship did not affect his dealings with others. Intriguingly, he describes this as a “tsaddik in fur,” a leader who keeps his precious gift of intimacy with God to himself, failing to use it for the benefit of his people. Rabbi Alshech tries to get inside Noah’s mind: “He was commanded by God to build an ark. He built it, nail after nail, board after board … and it never occurred to him that it might still be possible to overturn the decree and save the world from destruction?”
Was Noah really content to save his own family, knowing that the rest of humanity would soon be wiped off the face of the earth?
In the same tradition, the Kotzker Rebbe reflects on the evocative metaphor of the “tzaddik in furs.”
“When it is cold in the house, there are two possibilities: to warm the house, or to put on your own warm clothes. The difference is that the first way makes the house warm for all who live there; the second way brings comfort only to the person who owns the fur, while the others continue to freeze. Some tzadikkim, when they see that it is spiritually ‘cold,’ seek to warm the surroundings for everyone. Some enclose themselves within their own space, concerned only that they personally not be swept away in the cold.” (Itturei Torah, vol. 1, p. 55)
This month, as we anticipate our own country’s choice of national leaders Nov. 2, these metaphors are rich with meaning. Can we tolerate leaders who guard their own privileges, defending their own wealth and power to the detriment of others? Or do we hold our leaders to a higher standard, insisting that they be righteous enough to challenge injustice, knowing that the health of a society depends on the well-being of all?
This election stirs strong passions. We would be well to take quiet moments to genuinely pray for our country and its leaders, in the midst of our own deluge. May we be spared further destruction, and may our leaders learn from Abraham, not from Noah, about fighting for every soul.
Rabbi Amy Eilberg is a spiritual director in private practice.