This Shabbat, Parshat Noach, the shiur is written by Eitan Susman on the occasion of his Bar Mitzvah, the shiur was translated by his father R. Susman.
The question of the actual character of Noach is one that has consistently perplexed both Chazal and subsequent commentaries. The first Rashi in the parasha, which itself is taken from the Midrash, reflects the ambivalence that Chazal felt toward Noach. Rashi, commenting on the seemingly redundant words “in his generation” (in Hebrew it is only one word, b’dorotav), quotes two approaches to understanding Noach. One approach views these words as adding to the stature of Noach. Even in a generation such as his Noach was righteous, how much more righteous would he have been had he been born into a generation with other righteous people such as Avraham Avinu. The second school of thought stakes out the opposite position. Only in a generation as barren as Dor HaMabul would Noach be considered a tzaddik, but had he been in the generation of Avraham, he would not have been considered special.
Unstated by Rashi or the Midrash, but hovering in the background, is the comparison between Noach and another ambiguous figure of Sefer B’reishit, Avraham’s nephew, Lot. Presumably, the second opinion in the Midrash sees the two as comparable. Both cut an impressive figure when juxtaposed against sinners of a spectacular nature. Both sin, however, in unexpected fashion for tzadikim, Noach by getting drunk from his vinyard and Lot with his daughters after the destruction of Sodom and Amorrah. Certainly when compared to Avraham, both fade into oblivion.
While in this comment Rashi leaves his personal opinion unstated, one need not go far to discover which of the two positions in the Midrash Rashi finds more convincing. At the end of the same Passuk, Rashi comments on the phrase ” with G-d did Noach walk”. Rashi, again quoting the Midrash, compares this Passuk to a similar one describing Avraham “and Avraham walked before G-d”. Says Rashi, while Noach required support from G-d, Avraham righteousness strengthened him independently. Clearly then, Rashi sees Noach as a lesser force, thrust into the limelight by events and the lack of a more deserving personality.
Other Midrashim strengthen this perception. Says the Midrash in Breishit Rabba, “Even Noach who survived was unworthy, but G-d foresaw that Moshe would be his descendant”. Or another, as quoted by Rashi, ” Noach was lacking in faith. He believed but did not believe that the flood would come, and hence did not enter the ark until the water forced him in.”
The Zohar is also critical of Noach. “Come and see what separates Noach from Moshe. When G-d asked Moshe to allow him to wipe out B’nei Yisrael and make a great nation from Moshe, Moshe responded by saying, “will I abandon B’nei Yisrael for my own welfare?” Rather, Moshe prayed for the welfare of B’nei Yisrael. Noach, when G-d told him that he would be saved in the ark, failed to pray for the world, and it was destroyed.” Once again, Noach is compared to other Tzadikkim and is found wanting.
But we know that there is a second opinion in the Midrash, one which sees Noach as being righteous in his own right. This opinion also finds its support elsewhere, most notably in the Midrash in Breishit Rabba on the passuk “And Noach was 500 years old”(6:32), where the Midrash suggests that Noach is the model for the first passuk in Tehilim, “Content is the man who does not walk in the path of sinners” This refers to Noach. Clearly David HaMelech views Noach as a paradigm of righteousness if he begins Sefer Tehillim with Noach in mind.
The Ramban seems to adopt this approach as well. When commenting on the sin Noach commits by becoming drunk, the Ramban prefers to see it as an indication of the dangers of drink rather than a comment on the righteousness of Noach. Says the Ramban, “The righteous one, whose righteousness saved the world, he too came to sin because of wine”. The Ramban, then, states quite clearly that it was only on account of Noach’s righteousness that the world was spared.
Even the Zohar, which we quoted earlier as being critical of Noach, seems to tone down its critique of Noach. Commenting on the sacrifices Noach brings upon disembarking from the ark, the Zohar quotes a fascinating interchange between Noach and G-d. Upon leaving the ark and seeing the world destroyed, Noach begins to cry and says to G-d: “Lord, you are called merciful; you should have had mercy on your creations.” Answers G-d: “Foolish shepherd, now you say this? Why did you not say this when I designated you as righteous in my eyes? I only said that so that you would pray for mercy on the world. However you, when you heard that you would be saved in the ark, ignored the need to ask for mercy. And now you dare open your mouth before me?” When Noach understood this, he began to offer sacrifices. Noach then realizes his failure and seeks to atone for it.
Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch seeks to claim the middle ground between these two poles. R. Hirsch sees the use of the word “Ish” to describe Noach as a testament to Noach’s personality, one that could stand strong against the moral depravity of his generation. Nonetheless, R. Hirsch concedes the effects such a generation had on Noach, certainly it exacted a toll. But this too can be seen as a positive. To have accomplished as much as Noach did, despite the pressures to behave otherwise, marks him as an extraordinary individual, although in objective terms he was not a Tzaddik of the same caliber as Avraham or Moshe. This, however, is beside the point. At the point in History where Noach lived, the world did not need someone to walk befoe G-d, as Avraham did. Rather, it was sufficient that someone was prepared to walk with G-d. The effort that such willingness required was immense, and it provided the world with the necessary tools for salvation.
The message that R. Hirsch sees in Noach is clear to all of us, and not just to a Bar Mitzva boy. In all our lives we face challenges laid out for us by our surroundings. Our job is not necessarily to walk before G-d, but to make the effort to walk with G-d.