The "Righteous" Noach

October 23, 2011

6 min read


Noach (Genesis 6:9-11:32 )

Noach, the namesake and focus of this week's parsha, seems at first glance quite contradictory. On one hand, the Torah explicitly testifies in the beginning of the parsha that Noach was perfectly righteous, and he alone merited to be saved from the destruction which befell his contemporaries. Everyone alive today is descended from him and exists only in his merit.

On the other hand, Rashi points out that some Sages question how pious Noach truly was. The verse emphasizes that he was righteous in his generation, which can be read as implying that if he had lived in another generation, such as that of Avraham, he wouldn't have been considered unique or special in any way. This is difficult to understand. If the Torah explicitly praises Noach, why do the Sages minimize his greatness, and why do they specifically compare him to Avraham?

Further, Noach wasn't righteous enough to be completely exempt from the pain and suffering which was meted out to the rest of his generation. He was forced to survive the flood by spending a year in cramped quarters together with the rest of the animal kingdom, and he enjoyed no rest as he was constantly busy feeding each animal at the time when it was accustomed to eat. If he was indeed so righteous, why wasn't he simply told to escape to the Land of Israel, which according to one opinion (Talmud - Zevachim 113a) was miraculously protected and spared from the flood until the waters subsided?

Furthermore, after Noach survived this difficult experience, he received permission to exit the ark and was given a promise that God would never again destroy the world. Noach responded by planting a vineyard, getting drunk, and debasing himself (Genesis 9:20-21). How could he have fallen so far so quickly?

The answer to these apparent contradictions lies in the Zohar (Vol. 3 15a), which questions why the Haftarah (Isaiah 54:9) refers to the flood as "Mei Noach" - the floodwaters of Noach. Since Noach was the righteous tzaddik who was spared from the destruction, why is the flood named for him, implying that he was somehow responsible for it?

The Zohar answers that God commanded Noach (Genesis 6:14) to make an ark to save him and his family from the impending flood. During the 120 years that Noach was busy doing so, he neglected to pray for his contemporaries to repent their sins and be spared, and as a result, he was held accountable for the flood which may have been prevented through his prayers.

The Zohar teaches us that although Noach was personally righteous, he was content with his own individual piety to save himself and his family without being properly concerned about the welfare of his contemporaries. The Midrash compares Noach to a captain who saved himself while allowing his boat and its passengers to drown. With this insight, we can now appreciate that Noach's spiritual level was indeed complex and somewhat contradictory. He withstood the tremendous temptation to join the rest of his sinful generation and remained uniquely pious, yet at the same time he could have done much more on behalf of others.

This explains why he is specifically denigrated in comparison to Avraham, who was the paragon of chesed and whose entire life was focused on helping others. When Avraham was informed by God about the impending destruction of Sodom, he didn't content himself with the fact that he wasn't endangered, but repeatedly beseeched God to overturn the decree and spare them from destruction.

As far as why this was in fact the case, Rabbi Nachum of Horodna explains that Noach was born into a pious family. His grandfather was the righteous Methushelach, who lived to the age of 969 and for whom the flood was delayed until the end of the week of mourning after his death (Midrash Rabba 32:7). As such, Noach was content to follow in the righteous ways of his family and felt no need to focus his energies elsewhere. Avraham, on the other hand, was raised in an idolatrous environment which he forcefully rejected. Because his life circumstances forced him to discover God on his own, he was more naturally inclined to work to disseminate the knowledge of God to others.

Rabbi Moshe Shternbuch writes that this explains why Noach was forced to endure such a difficult and exhausting year in the ark, instead of living peacefully with his family in the Land of Israel. Even though Noach was deemed sufficiently righteous to be saved and to repopulate the earth, he was found lacking in the area of feeling compassion for others. In order to teach this lesson, God required him to spend the duration of the flood engaged in continuous chesed, feeding the various animals around the clock, each with its own unique menu and eating time. The Midrash adds that Noach was so busy feeding the animals that he was unable to sleep that entire year in the ark, and when he once brought the lion's food a little late, it responded by biting him (Rashi, Genesis 7:23).

Still, although it is important to do acts of kindness for others, the Meshech Chochmah points out that one might assume that one nevertheless loses out in the process, as the time and energy dedicated to others come at the expense of investing in his own growth and development. However, he quotes a Midrash (Bereishis Rabbah 36:3) which points out that precisely the opposite is in fact the case. Although Noach is initially introduced as an "ish tzaddik tamim" - a perfectly righteous man, his lifelong focus on himself caused him to fall and be transformed into an "ish ha'adama" - a man of the earth (Genesis 9:20).

In contrast, Moses, who dedicated his entire life to the welfare of others, was originally described (Exodus 2:19) as an "ish mitzri" - an Egyptian man who was forced into exile - but through his efforts on behalf of the Jewish people he elevated him to the pinnacle of perfection and was called (Deut. 33:1) an "ish haElokim" - a man of God. This teaches that a person never loses out by doing chesed for others.

* * *


The Zohar teaches that prior to the sin of eating from the tree of knowledge, the serpent was known merely as the letter "chet." After it successfully enticed Chava to sin, Adam added to its name the letter "nun" from God's name of Lordship (Ado-noy) and the letter "shin" from God's name Sha-dai, calling it "nachash" to mitigate its potential to bring evil into the world. Similarly, the accusing angel was initially known by the letters "samech-mem," but to counteract its wicked powers Adam added one of God's names and called it Sama'el.

The Meged Yosef writes in the name of his grandfather, the mystic Rabbi Leib Sarah's, that for a time Adam's plan worked successfully. The additions from the Divine names kept the evil powers in check, and the world functioned reasonably for nine generations, but in the generation of Noach the world was filled with chamas - robbery. They sinned so greatly that they allowed the serpent and the prosecuting angel to regain their initial strength, as chamas is a combination of their original names (samech and mem).

In order to restore justice to the world, God had no choice but to once again diminish the power of this dastardly duo. He commanded Noach to make an ark which would measure 300 cubits long, 50 cubits wide, and 30 cubits tall, with the roof of the ark sloping upward to one cubit so that the rain would run off. Although one could mistakenly view these dimensions as arbitrary, the Meged Yosef explains the depth and precision of every detail in the Torah.

As each letter in the Hebrew alphabet has a numerical value, we may re-express the dimensions of the ark as shin cubits in length, nun cubits in width, lamed cubits in height, and an aleph cubit finish on the roof. The length and width are precisely the two letters needed to once again transform the I>chet back into nachash, while the height and the finish on top are exactly what were needed to reduce the mighty samech-mem into Sama'el. The ark which was built with these dimensions allowed Noach to combat the "chamas" which was rampant in his generation and be saved from the flood brought to destroy it.

* * *


The Shulchan Aruch rules (Orach Chaim 229:1) that one who sees a rainbow recites a blessing praising God for remembering His covenant (Genesis 9:12-13) to never again destroy the earth. How can one look at a rainbow in order to recite this blessing when the Talmud (Chagiga 16a) teaches that one who gazes at a rainbow will have his vision impaired?

The Mishnah Berurah (229:5) differentiates between histak'lut - prolonged and intense gazing - and re'iya - a quick, passing glance. The Talmud teaches that the former will have deleterious effects on one's vision. However, the latter will cause no damage and is all that is necessary in order to recite the blessing. Therefore, somebody who becomes aware of a rainbow should quickly look at it in order to say the appropriate blessing and then look away in order to protect his eyesight.

Next Steps