These are the generations of Noah. Noah was a good and just man. He was a pure man in his generation. [Genesis 6:9]
The saga of Noah and the flood is well known, yet Noah remains an elusive personality. What was the nature of Noah’s goodness? The description of Noah as TZADDIK — which can be variously translated as a good, just, righteous man, in other words, a saint — but with the qualification, “in his generation,” sounds like a back-handed compliment. The implication seems to be that in a rotten generation, Noah looked good. Is that what is meant here?
Rashi, the great 11th century Torah commentator offers two opinions. He writes: “There are among the sages who view Noah positively. Certainly had he been living in a generation of just individuals, he would have been more just. While some view him negatively. Had he been living in the generation of Abraham he would have been considered worthless.”
In order to come down on the side of one opinion or the other, and pass judgment on the true value of Noah’s goodness, we must first understand the generation in which he lived.
And it came to pass, when men began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born to them, that the sons of the rulers saw the daughters of men that they were pretty; and they took as wives all those whom they chose … The earth also was corrupt before God, and the earth was filled with violence. And God looked upon the earth, and, behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted its way upon the earth. And God said to Noah, ‘The end of all flesh has come before me; for the earth is filled with violence through them; and, behold, I will destroy them with the earth.’ [Genesis 6:1-2, 11-12]
The terms which the Torah uses to describe the generation of Noah include corruption and thievery. A description is given of powerful men taking any women they chose. It is a generation in which moral boundaries have broken down. The very fabric of society, its social contract, is nonexistent. In this case, what was the nature of Noah’s goodness? Apparently, Noah did not partake of the licentiousness and thievery of his generation. Noah did no evil. On the other hand, we do not find him performing good deeds, either. In a sense, Noah is an island, neither hurting others, nor helping them. This is the greatness of Noah, as well as the tragedy of Noah.
The Zohar, the chief work of the Kabbalah, recounts a conversation between Noah and God which took place after the flood:
What did God answer Noah when he left the Ark and saw the world destroyed? He [Noah] began to cry before God and he said, “Master of the universe, You are called compassionate. You should have been compassionate for Your creation.” God responded and said, “You are a foolish shepherd. Now you say this?! Why did you not say this at the time I told you that I saw that you were righteous among your generation, or afterward when I said that I will bring a flood upon the people, or afterward when I said to build an ark? I constantly delayed and I said, ‘When is he [Noah] going to ask for compassion for the world?’ … And now that the world is destroyed, you open your mouth, to cry in front of me, and to ask for supplication?” [Zohar Hashmatot, Bereishit 254b]
God is telling Noah that as the leader of his generation, he had responsibilities toward his followers. He was commanded to build the ark, yet he did not save even one person. His leadership may be compared to a shepherd who sees his flock straying from the proper path, wandering in the proximity of dangerous wolves, and concludes that the sheep deserve to be eaten because they have strayed. This is why God called him a “foolish shepherd.”
The Zohar continues:
Rabbi Yochanan said, “Come and see the difference between the righteous among the Jews after Noah, and Noah. Noah did not defend his generation, nor did he pray for them, as Abraham did. When God told Abraham that [he would destroy] Sodom and Gomorrah … immediately Abraham began to pray in front of God until he asked of God if ten good people were found, would God forgive the entire city because of them … Some time later, Moses came, and when God said to him, “They have turned aside quickly from the way in which I commanded them,” immediately, Moshe stood and prayed … It is said that Moses was willing to give his soul for the people in both this world and the next … “[Zohar Hashmatot, Bereishit 254b]
The next great religious leader was Abraham. When faced with the horrific acts of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham pleads with God not to kill the good along with the evil. Noah never engaged God in a similar dialogue.
Moses went even further. After the Jews commit the terrible sin of worshipping the Golden Calf, God is prepared to destroy the entire people. Despite the people’s guilt, Moshe pleads with God, challenging Him: What could be expected of a nation which had just left Egypt and had not yet had time to develop spiritually? Moses is referred to in the Zohar as a “faithful shepherd.” Despite the people’s guilt, Moses argued with God. He even had the audacity to tell God that if God planned to wipe out the entire people, He should “wipe me out as well.”
Noah accepts the decree of God. If the people are guilty, there is no argument. Abraham tries to argue, to perhaps exonerate some of the people of the city and, at best, perhaps save the city from annihilation on the merit of the ten good men he is certain can be found there. Moses is prepared to sacrifice himself in order to save the nation,despite their undisputed guilt.
But Noah does nothing even remotely close. He toils for 120 years building the ark, yet in all that time, not one person was brought under the influence of this great religious personality. The name Noah means “comfortable” in Hebrew, and Noah was, indeed, comfortable. He was comfortable and self-satisfied in his own righteousness. When he is finished building, he boards the ark with his family and the designated animals, leaving everyone else to perish.
Imagine what would have happened had Noah refused to board the ark. But that is surely how Moses would have responded.
It is fascinating that the first time we encounter Moses, he is but a three-month-old infant being placed in an ark by his mother who can no longer hide him from the Pharoah’s death-squads:
She took an ark made of reeds, and daubed it with slime and with pitch, and put the child in it; and she laid it in the rushes by the [Nile] river’s bank. [Exodus 2:5-5]
Reading these lines, we have a sense this infant, floating in an ark in the Nile, is destined to begin his mission where Noah left off his own. Moses’ entire career will be that of a “faithful shepherd” always willing to sacrifice self for his flock. All of his 120 years will be devoted to this single purpose, perhaps in order to rectify Noah’s failure in the 120-year period during which he built the ark.
The Zohar, explaining the parallels between Noah and Moses, states that when humanity sins, God always speaks with the best man of the generation in order that the just man pray for forgiveness for all. But while this is exactly what Moses did when his flock sinned, Noah only worried about himself. This is why, centuries later when the prophet Isaiah speaks, he calls the flood waters, “the waters of Noah” [Isaiah 54:9]. Noah is himself held responsible for the downpour. [Zohar, Vayikra, 3:15a]
The Zohar looks to Moses for the rectification of Noah’s lapse, and it finds it in a Biblical word play on the “waters of Noah” — mei Noah. When Moses offers his own life for his people after the incident with the golden calf, he tells God:
Now if you would forgive their sin, and if not, erase me, I beg you, from your book which you have written. [Exodus 32:32]
The Hebrew phrase “erase me” is m’heini is an anagram of mei Noah! The Ariza’l explains that at the moment Moses said to God, “erase me” — m’heini — the spiritual lapse of Noah that resulted in the flood — mei Noah — was healed. [Ariza”l Shar Pesukim Berieshit Drush 4]
Noah’s spiritual stumbling continues after he leaves the ark. He and his family are the only human beings alive — all around him are the remains of a holocaust. He is a survivor. How does Noah cope with all this? He plants a vineyard and then gets drunk on the wine. Noah cannot cope with the enormity of the destruction that he has witnessed. Perhaps he senses his own failure — that his passivity led to the destruction of an entire civilization.
He [Noah] drank of the wine and became intoxicated; and he unconvered himself inside his tent. And [Noah’s son] Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers outside. And Shem and Yafet took a garment, and laid it upon both their shoulders, and walked backward, and covered the nakedness of their father; and their faces were backward, and they saw not their father’s nakedness. And Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done to him. [Genesis 9:21-24]
The Sages of the Talmud have two opinions about what actually transpired: “Rab and Samuel differ, one maintaining that Ham castrated him, while the other that he sodomized him.” [Sanhedrin 70a] What both opinions have in common is the incredible rage Ham directed toward Noah.
Let us consider what Ham’s world-view must have been. He had grown up, surrounded by a culture of violence, thievery and sexual licentiousness. And then he saw that his father’s passivity caused the destruction of his world. His actions seem an expression of Ham’s rage and disdain at that passivity. Furthermore, we must not overlook the fact that Noah was the only good and just man in his generation. That means that his children were like the rest of the lot. They were saved from the flood totally on their father’s merit. It would seem that Noah failed even in educating his own children. Noah’s passivity — of which his nakedness is a metaphor — was evident in all his relationships.
Noah lives for some 300 years after the flood, fathering children, witnessing the birth of numerous descendants, countless future generations. What message does Noah impart to his descendants? Again, or still, it seems that Noah remains passive; he has nothing to say, as if the rest of his life remains clouded by this intoxication, even when the world around him begins again to sin against God.
And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech … And they said one to another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for mortar. And they said, “Come, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach to heaven … And the Lord said, “Behold, the people are one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do; and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have schemed to do.” [Genesis 11:1-6]
At the tower of Babel, all the people of the world were gathered. The sages tell us that Noah was still alive, but again he was silent. This is the tragedy of Noah. It was not only his own generation that he did not try to protect and educate, but even his own children and grandchildren were deprived of the influence of that “good and just” man. We can only imagine the leadership which Noah could have displayed, the insights he should have shared with future generations, the courage and religious zeal he might have taught the generations following the flood. But tradition reports nothing.
Aside from Noah, there was another prominent individual who was present at the Tower. His name was Abraham.
The Kabbalah teaches:
We find that Noah lived ten years after the dispersion following the destruction of the Tower of Babel; Abraham was forty eight years old at the dispersion.[Seder Olam, Ch. 1]
And now the answer to our original questions comes clear. We find that Noah did live in the generation of Abraham, and indeed, he was worthless.
The image Noah left for posterity is of a man calm in the face of turbulent waters, withstanding incredible social pressures. Noah stands alone, floating on his ark, floating on his island, forming no relationships, forging no change. Alone, in silence.
Noah was there at the Tower of Babel with all of his knowledge and experience, and Abraham was there with his simple idealism. The time and place were ripe for a religious renaissance. If these leaders would have joined forces, the world could have been elevated and saved. They could have reached heaven, and would have had no need for a tower. But alas, Noah was silent. Abraham would have to start anew, alone.