Rav Asher Sabag
Former Shaliach in Chicago (2003-4)
“These are the offspring of Noach, Noach was a righteous man, he was perfect in his generations; Noach walked with God.” (Breishit 6:9)
Rashi famously cites Chazal on this pasuk:
“Some of our Rabbis interpret [the phrase, ‘in his generations,’] favorably – How much more so if he had been in a generation of righteous people, he would have been even more righteous. And there are those who interpret it derogatorily – According to his generation he was righteous, but if he had been in Avraham’s generation, he would not have been considered anything.”
While Rashi himself does not seem to take sides in the above passage, he does subsequently state:
“And regarding Avraham, it says, ‘Walk before Me.’ Noach needed support to uphold him, but Avraham would strengthen himself and walk in his righteousness on his own.”
Conventional wisdom tends to describe Noach as a tzaddik who was too busy with his own concerns to make an impact on his generation. In fact, this is the stereotypical description of the Diaspora Jew.
Yet in this article, I will follow those who view Noach in a positive light. HaKadosh Baruch Hu gives each generation the tzaddikimwhich it requires. Thus, if HaKadosh Baruch Hu places Noach in the dor hamabul (the generation of the flood), there must be a reason.
The Mishnah alludes to the difference between Noach and Avraham and the difference between the generations preceding Noach and those which came after him:
“There were ten generations from Adam to Noach – to show the extent of His tolerance; for all these generations angered Him increasingly, until He brought upon them the waters of the flood. There were ten generations from Noach to Avraham – to show the extent of His tolerance; for all these generations angered Him increasingly, until Avraham came and reaped the reward for them all.” (Avot 5:2)
At first glance, Noach appears to serve as a neutral cut off point between the two groups of generations. After all, the Mishnah refers to the initial ten generations and then notes that HaKadosh Baruch Hu punished them. (Noach’s deeds are not mentioned.) Then, after the Mishnah talks about the next ten generations, we are told that Avraham’s deeds or merit enabled the world to exist.
Upon a closer look at the exact numbers, however, we can see that Noach is included only in the first group of generations – despite the fact that he was not included in their punishment and also in spite of the fact that he was alive during the second period.
In order to understand the prevailing conditions during Noach’s lifetime, we must examine the gradual decline which began with Adam HaRishon’s sin. Kayin’s sin immediately follows Adam’s sin. Nevertheless, HaKadosh Baruch Hu continues to be present and even speaks to Adam and Kayin. A further deterioration occurs in Enosh’s time:
“Then it became common to call in the Name of Hashem.” (Breishit 4:26)
Chazal explain that this pasuk denotes the onset of avodah zarah, even though the pasuk’s p’shat (simple meaning) seems to suggest the exact opposite.
But there is another way to understand this pasuk. The Navi states:
“Behold, days are coming, says Hashem God, and I will send hunger into the land; not a hunger for bread and not a thirst for water, but to hear the words of Hashem.” (Amos 8:11)
This pasuk describes how the relationship with HaKadosh Baruch Hu deteriorates: It is “common to call in the Name of Hashem”, but He does not respond! This is the first stage of the Divine “disengagement” from humanity.
The second stage occurs later, during Chanoch’s generation. The Torah states:
“And Chanoch walked with God; and he was no longer, for God had taken him.” (Breishit 5:24)
According to the p’shat, Chanoch tries to renew the Divine connection, which had been severed in Enosh’s time. But Chanoch is not seeking a relationship with the Name of Hashem; rather, he walks in the path of God – i.e. concealed Divine Providence. Chanoch fails, and his failure was obvious to everyone and presumably caused overwhelming despair and hopelessness.
Noach met Chanoch and even learned from him. Imagine how his honored teacher’s failure must have affected Noach. The believer was taken before his time, but the wicked of the generation live long lives and continue in their evil ways. Meanwhile, the world is in a terrible physical state as well. The ground is still cursed; thorns and thistles grow – as Lemech, Noach’s father, suggests.
And so, in this dismal period, Noach is born into the cruel world of “the earth became full of chamas (robbery)” (Breishit 6:11), where Hashem’s Presence is concealed.
Yet, Noach’s birth marks a hope for change. Lemech initiates this change by refusing to succumb to the pervasive despair. Instead, he imbues his son’s name with hope:
“This one will give us rest from our work and from the toil of our hands, from the ground which Hashem has cursed.” (Breishit 5:29)
Thus, Noach, whose name alludes to his very nature, begins his confrontation with the world into which he is born. He does not become despondent when faced with the lack of communication; he tries to find ways to improve the physical and spiritual situation. When his teacher dies before his time, Noach does not break. Instead, he realizes that his teacher erred by placing himself before God. As a result, Noach changes his path and places God and belief in God first. He completely negates himself and thereby manages to survive, and hope survives with him.
Noach is the only tzaddik about whom the Torah states:
“And Noach found favor in the eyes of Hashem.” (Breishit 6:8)
His incredible bitachon and emunah – even in such inhumane conditions – did not escape Hashem’s eyes. The word chen (favor) is an anagram of Noach, and this is not accidental. Chen exists inside; it is not an external trait. Noach’s completeness was not just skin-deep. He survives the flood, and hope for rebuilding the world survives with him. Indeed, as soon as he leaves the teivah (the ark), he begins to resettle the world.
The subsequent generations are characterized by greater control of nature. However, their problem is not despair, but the opposite. They have an immoderate faith in their own strengths and abilities, and this is where Avraham comes in. With sincerity and modesty, he teaches the world how to achieve greatness. His path is based on the hope which Noach had given the world, and therefore, Avraham is able to take it to the next level and “walk before Hashem”.
Noach merited seeing his hope fulfilled, the world rebuilt, and Avraham Avinu leading the world on a new path.
We – the generation of the atchalta d’geulah (the beginning of the redemption), the generation of building – occasionally tend to judge the earlier generations who lived in galut (exile) and focused inward. But we forget that their emunah in a better future and in the geulah was immense, even in the most difficult times.
The strength needed to oppose the entire world and to have emunah in spite of the bitter reality is a strength we must preserve and protect. May we be privileged to combine Noach and Avraham’s respective strengths: the hope and the emunah that things will improve together with the power to walk forward and accomplish, and may we all merit, b’ezrat Hashem, to find chen.