Trying Our Best – Just Like Noah Did
This week’s Torah portion Noah describes the great flood sent on Earth by the Eternal because of humanity’s sins. Only Noah and his family are saved by the Eternal from dying in the midst of the rising waters. What did Noah do to deserve such a privilege? The answer to this question can be found at the beginning of our Parashat,
„This is the line of Noah: Noah was a righteous man; he was blameless in his age.” (Genesis 6:9.)
At first glance this verse seems to provide a compelling reason for saving Noah, who is described as a righteous and blameless man. However, the words that caught the attention of our sages were the following: “In his age”. The Rabbis wondered whether this phrase meant that Noah could be viewed as righteous only in the context of his own era, marked by a general decline in morality. In Bereshit Rabba, a book of Midrashim on the Book of Genesis, we find a discussion between Rabbi Judah and Rabbi Nehemia concerning Noah’s character. Rabbi Judah compared Noah to a person with one eye blind taking a stroll along a street full of blind people. In such circumstances even someone partially blind would be viewed as capable of seeing. Rabbi Judah was convinced that Noah would not have been viewed as righteous in the times of Moses or of prophet Samuel. Rabbi Nehemia opposed this view, comparing Noah to perfumes used in a place with an unpleasant smell. We could still sense their scent, although it would not be strong. Rabbi Nehemia claimed that in a different era the scent (righteousness) of Noah would have been sensed even from afar.
Both Rabbi Jehuda and Rabbi Nehemia seem to believe that Noah was never punished for his pre-flood actions. Some of the sages disagreed with them. Rav Huna claimed that as a punishment Noah was bitten by a lion as the animals were being released from the ark after the flood waters had subsided. In such case the question arises what Noah’s transgression might have been.
Devarim Rabba, a Midrash on the Book of Deuteronomy, seems to provide us with an answer to this question, as it compares Noah and Moses to two captains of sinking ships. The first one, Noah, saves from death only himself and his family, whereas the second captain, Moses, saves all the passengers (by asking the Eternal not to wipe out the Israelites who were worshipping the golden calf.) According to this interpretation, Noah might have transgressed by showing no interest in the fate of the rest of humanity once the flood came.
The above mentioned Midrash shows us why Noah cannot be viewed as being equal to Moses. However, I am not sure whether Noah’s actions truly deserved punishment. The Midrash teaches us that Noah warned humanity about the flood, repeatedly admonishing them to change their behavior. After undertaking many such attempts Noah simply gave up. Once the flood came, he was convinced that it was already too late and he focused on saving his own family instead. His behavior right before the flood may not rank as the greatest act of altruism; however, it was profoundly human. In my opinion this moment portrays Noah’s character – of an imperfect human being trying to act the best he can.
Noah’s character reminds me of the words of Rabban Gamliel from tractate Pirkei Avot,
In a place where there is no man [where no one follows moral rules], strive to be a man (Pirkei Avot 2:5.)
This Shabbat I encourage you to ask yourselves if sometimes you find yourselves in situations when no one does the right thing. If you do, I encourage you to behave decently in such cases. Who knows, perhaps just like Noah you will manage not to drown in an ocean of excuses such as, “everyone does it”, “nothing can be done to change it” or “that’s just the way it is”. Shabbat Shalom!
Translated from Polish by: Marzena Szymańska-Błotnicka