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Noah vs. Moses: The Path to an Elevated Existence

Noach (Genesis 6:9-11:32 )

by Rabbi Dr. Benji Levy

At the start of his namesake portion, Noah is described in a manner that reflects his initial nature, ‘…Noah was a righteous man (ish tzaddik), perfect in his generation; Noah walked with God’ (Gen. 6:9). He is a man of perfection who strives for the ideal in life. In contrast to the surrounding amoral community, Noah carefully adheres to a code of ethical behaviour as an ish tzaddik, elevating what may otherwise seen as mundane experiences.

God envelops earth in a flood, cleansing it of iniquity and providing humanity with a second chance. Noah, the ish tzaddik, has the unprecedented opportunity of restarting civilization. Yet, he puts the wrong foot forward and the opportunity is missed. As he re-enters the new untainted world, ‘Noah, the man of the earth (ish adama), debases himself and plants a vineyard’ (9:20) – leading to his intoxication and subsequent self-embarrassment. In this new stage of his life, Noah lives for his own self-gratification. From being a lofty and righteous ish tzaddik, he falls to the status of ish adama, a man of the earth – void of ideals and no longer aspiring towards perfection.

Ironically, when Noah is challenged with the formidable task of building and sustaining the ark, a microcosm of the new world, he personifies the ish tzaddik. When, in contrast, his task becomes less momentous as he re-enters daily life on the land, he plants grapes in the field, becomes entirely self-absorbed and transitions into being an ish adama. In this contrast, the importance of a sense of purpose is revealed. The danger of Noah’s sin, in comparison to the very explicit sins that surround him in the generation of the flood, is in its subtlety. He is not morally degenerate, overly arrogant or a pagan wanderer but simply an ish adama, a person devoid of lofty ideals. So too, one’s greatest challenges often come when least expected, hidden among the seemingly most mundane moments.

The Midrash juxtaposes Noah’s regression to Moses’s evolution (Midrash Tanchuma, Ch. 3). Moses is introduced by Yitro’s daughters as an ish mitzri (Egyptian) (Ex. 2:19). Having grown up in the palace of Pharaoh, Moses is naturally associated with the Egyptians and their immoral ways. Later Moses is described as an ish ha-Elokim (a man of God) (Deut. 33:1). With this subtle change in title, the Torah reveals the great transformation of Moses, from the ish mitzri raised in the heart of Egyptian society, to the spiritual and heroic leader of the Jewish nation, an ish ha-Elokim.

Throughout the narrative of Moses’s life one can see the potential for growth, the opportunities for greatness, and the giant a person can become, even one who comes from the most unpropitious background. In parallel, however, Noah demonstrates the simple reality of potential that is wasted due to lack of fortitude and conviction.

Perhaps there is another powerful difference between these two protagonists who, each in his own way, redefined who he became. God tells Noah, ‘…I am about to destroy them from the earth’ (Gen. 6:13). Noah, without heroism, passively accepts this as fact and moves on. He builds an ark exclusively for his family, and the rest of the world perishes. And when he finally has the chance to replenish the world and to rebuild all that was lost, his first act is to plant for himself a vineyard – the ultimate act of self-indulgence.

An almost identical statement is made by God to Moses, ‘God said to Moses… Let My anger flare up against them and I shall annihilate them; and shall make you a great nation’ (Ex. 32:10). God offers Moses to start from scratch – to build a brand new, worthy nation, with Moses at its head. Moses could have reacted like Noah, passively accepting God’s decree. Yet Moses does not take no for an answer. His true heroism is expressed when he challenges God Himself, advocating on behalf of his beloved people, ‘Why, God, should Your anger flare up against your people…’ (32:11). Moses knows well, from his own personal life, about the potential of growth, and that even from the lowest depths, people can rise to the greatest heights.

Often in life we take the easy way out and concentrate solely on our own personal endeavours at the expense of more challenging communal responsibilities. We learn from Noah, though, how such an approach can trigger a downward spiral from ish tzaddik to ish adama and how in Noah’s circumstances, it leads to the ultimate demise of the people around him. Moses, in contrast, opts for the path less travelled – focusing on the needs of others rather than his own, and dictating circumstance rather than letting them be dictated to him. Both in his personal achievements and with respect to the greater good he is triumphant, as he saves the entire nation from death and attains the lofty status of an ish ha-Elokim.

In a world where the most convenient approach is that of Noah, to look after oneself exclusively, Moses’s greatness looms as a paradigm and presents each of us with a challenge – to focus on the needs of the other before our own needs elevates our own existence in the process.

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