In response to accusations that Donald Trump arranged his finances to avoid paying any federal income tax for years, he responded, “Because I’m smart.” Previously, he lauded himself the “King of Debt,” bragging that he was able to use skillful manipulation of bankruptcy law to come out ahead even as his casinos failed, stockholders lost millions of dollars, and employees lost their jobs. Playing the game well according to the rules that are in place may not make Trump a criminal, but it certainly doesn’t make him a saint. Actually, it makes him Noah.
The rabbis of the Midrash struggle to understand Noah, who is introduced with the ambiguous Hebrew words “Noah ish tzadik, tamim haya bidorotav — Noah was a righteous man; he was complete in his generation.” One opinion is that this means he was righteous for his generation; he was the best a degenerate generation had, but would have been mediocre in better company. The other is that this means he was righteous despite his generation; being righteous in a degenerate generation only shows how much more impact he could have had in a more worthy setting. However, despite being presented an as argument, these two opinions are not mutually exclusive. Both assessments of Noah could be true simultaneously.
Perhaps, then, the entire discussion is telling us that Noah was righteous in the manner of his generation. The biblical narrative tells us that the land was full of corruption. The rabbis interpret that they looked to take advantage of each other, even steal from each other, but in ways and in quantities that were not legally actionable. Despite following the letter of the law, their culture was one in which the strong preyed upon the weak and people only looked out for themselves as opposed to the common good.
The Midrash maintains that the extended period it took Noah to build the Ark was intended to attract the interest of those around him, so as to make them aware of what was going on so that they would reform their behavior. That said, there is no evidence in the biblical narrative of Noah engaging in this sort of outreach. Despite his relative righteousness, Noah perfectly embodied the antisocial, competitive character of his generation. He was primarily interested in protecting himself and his family, fulfilling the letter of God’s command, even if it meant literally letting everyone around him drown. In an unguarded moment, Noah might have called himself “the King of Floods.”
In truth, Donald Trump is also tamim haya bidorotav – a near-perfect embodiment of a generation defined by the widest wealth inequality in decades. The rise of popular protest movements over the past several years are a result of a growing awareness that there is simply less accountability for those fortunate enough to be at the top, and less justice for everyone closer to the bottom. Trump’s approach to business may may not be especially unusual for his economic class, even if his rhetoric and persona are especially obnoxious. Trump has not committed more fraud than Wells Fargo, nor has he destroyed more small businesses than Wal-Mart.
The Midrash asserts that as the rain began to fall, Noah’s neighbors, finally understanding their predicament, tried to destroy the Ark so Noah would have to share their fate. It is a bitter irony that today, a populist wave threatens to help Trump seal the doors and float away.