“Honest Abe, Noach, and The Donald” Parashat Noach 5777

The chief protagonist of Parashat Noach – Noach – is introduced in a most enigmatic way [Bereishit 6:9]: “Noach was a righteous person; he was perfect in his generations”. Why doesn’t the Torah just tell us that Noach was simply “perfect”? What does the phrase “in his generations” come to tell us? Rashi brings an answer from the Midrash: “Some of our Sages interpret [the phrase] favourably: How much more so if [Noach] had lived in a generation of righteous people, he would have been even more righteous. Others interpret it derogatorily: In comparison with his generation he was righteous, but if he had been in Avraham’s generation, he would not have been considered of any importance”. Some say that Noach was the best there ever was: He was FDR, Abe Lincoln, and George Washington all rolled into one. Others say that he was merely the best that his generation had to offer: he was an amalgam of Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton.

My Rav and my mentor, Rabbi Silberman, noted that Rashi writes that “some of our sages” interpret the phrase favourably, while plain “others” interpret it derogatorily. Rabbi Silberman told me that a real sage would have given Noach the benefit of the doubt, whereas a person of a lower level would not. It is clear that Rabbi Silberman was not castigating the author of the Midrash, but, rather, was trying to teach a lesson. I say this because the Talmud in Tractate Sanhedrin [108a] brings this Midrash along with the names of the Rabbis whose opinions it quotes. Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish, better known as “Resh Lakish”, teaches that Noach was Honest Abe. Rabbi Yochanan asserts that Noach was Trump. Both of these Rabbis were towering Torah scholars: Rabbi Yochanan was the author of the Jerusalem Talmud and Resh Lakish was his star student and study partner (chavruta). It would be improper to besmirch either of these two giants and I am certain that Rabbi Silberman had no such intention. But the question remains: If there is room to interpret that Noach was indeed righteous, why does Rabbi Yochanan not give Noach the benefit of the doubt? This question is asked by a multitude of commentators and a multitude of answers are suggested. For instance, the Torah tells us that Noach entered the ark [Bereishit 7:7] “because of the floodwaters”. The Midrash explains that Noach did not really believe that Hashem would destroy the world, and only when torrential rain began to fall did Noach realize that “this is not a drill”. Rabbi Yochanan was espousing the opinion of this Midrash. The common denominator of all these answers is that they all come from the Midrash. In only one place does the Torah explicitly attribute any misdeed whatsoever to Noach and that is after the flood when he becomes drunk and becomes disrobed[1]. Everywhere else, Noach is, well, “perfect”.

This question is made even stronger by a Midrashic comment made on a later verse. When Hashem gives Noach the blueprints for the ark, He tells Noach [Bereishit 6:16] “Make a tzohar for the ark”. Rashi again brings the Midrash to explain this enigmatic word: “Some say [that it was] a window and some say [that it was] a precious stone, which gave them light.” The connection between the tzohar and Noach’s perfection is straightforward: if Noach was righteous, then he had a right to see Hashem destroy his evil neighbours, and so the tzohar was a skylight. But if Noach was only slightly better than anybody else, he would not have been allowed to witness Divine Vengeance, and so the tzohar was some sort of dazzling gem. A quick look at the Talmud in Tractate Sanhedrin validates this hypothesis: It is Rabbi Yochanan who says that the tzohar was a crazy diamond. Strangely, the Talmud omits the opinion of Resh Lakish. While we must assume that it is he who asserts that the tzohar was a skylight, it remains an assumption. This, to me, is just as bothersome as Rabbi Yochanan’s insistence that Noach was chosen because it was either him or Ted Cruz.

I believe that the best way ahead is to familiar ourselves the complicated relationship between Rav Yochanan and Resh Lakish, as related in the Talmud in Tractate Bava Metzia [84a,b]. When the two meet for the first time, Resh Lakish is a notorious outlaw. Rabbi Yochanan is impressed with Resh Lakish’s physical strength and convinces him to devote it to the study of Torah. In turn, Rabbi Yochanan offers him the hand of his beautiful sister in marriage. Resh Lakish studies together with Rav Yochanan and eventually attains a level of scholarship equal to that of his mentor. The Talmud then segues to the death of Resh Lakish. There was a dispute in the study hall concerning iron weapons such as knives and swords as to when their construction is completed and they become subject to the laws of purity. Rabbi Yochanan said it was from the time they came out of the furnace. Resh Lakish said it was from the time they were taken out of the water [from being tempered]. Rabbi Yochanan said, “A robber knows his trade [a reference to Resh Lakish’s past life as a robber experienced with knives and swords]”. Resh Lakish retorted, “What good have you done me? In my old profession [as a robber] I was called a master, as I’m called in my new profession [as a Torah scholar]!” Rabbi Yochanan replied, “Have I not brought you under the wings of the Divine Presence?” Rabbi Yochanan was so upset that Resh Lakish became ill. Rabbi Yochanan ignored his sister’s pleas to pray for her husband and Resh Lakish eventually died. How could Rabbi Yochanan be so cruel to Resh Lakish to bring up his sordid past in the middle of the study hall? The answer is that Rabbi Yochanan was not being cruel at all. A Rabbi must always consult with subject matter experts before making a Halachic ruling. Resh Lakish happened to be a subject matter expert on the subject of weaponry. But Resh Lakish misunderstood his Rabbi. He was hurt to the core of his being by the fact that Rabbi Yochanan could still see him as a thief. He was so hurt that he left the study hall and never returned, entering a depression from which he never recovered. Rabbi Yochanan did not understand the way his words pulled the floor out from underneath Resh Lakish’s psyche by insinuating that he was still motivated by his old persona and not as a Torah scholar. Only after Resh Lakish’s death does Rabbi Yochanan realise that he and the world had not only lost a unique and mighty Torah scholar but also the person that had made Rabbi Yochanan into Rabbi Yochanan.

I suggest that the disagreement on the extent of Noach’s perfection preceded the disagreement on the tzohar by many years. The first disagreement occurs soon after the two men first meet. Resh Lakish believes that a man can rise above his surroundings while Rabbi Yochanan believes that a man is always a product of them. Resh Lakish believes in the power of a person to decide who or what he can become, regardless of his roots, and to become that person. Resh Lakish lived his formative years among the likes of Ned Kelly and Jesse James and yet he still became a pious Torah scholar. Imagine how far he could have climbed had he grown up in an environment that was directed by Jewish values, or had he an Avraham Avinu to teach him the ways of Hashem. Rabbi Yochanan judges a person from within his context – he will always be limited both by his nature and by his nurture. Noach grew up with The Clintons and The Donald. He would never be in the same league as Avraham Avinu. The second disagreement occurs after Resh Lakish has died, and so his opinion must be left to the imagination. Rabbi Yochanan believes that Resh Lakish had somehow overcome his environs: he had become a Torah scholar of prowess that equalled that of Rabbi Yochanan. But Rabbi Yochanan also believed that Resh Lakish had committed a grave sin by “looking back”. In a similar vein, no matter perfect Noach was, he could not look back at the punishment being meted out to his neighbours. He had to completely and irreversibly cut himself off from his past.

The proximity of this shiur to the US Presidential elections next week is not a coincidence. It is my hope and prayer that regardless of the outcome, the winner will rise above the most toxic campaign in history, and will have the skill and the initiative to vindicate Resh Lakish.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5777

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Moshe Dov ben Malka and Adi bat Ravit.

[1] Even when this happens, the Torah stresses that Noach was disrobed [Bereishit 9:29] “within his tent”. Contrary to popular belief, Noach was never guilty of public indecency.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over twenty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including two briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. He speaks regularly for the Israeli Foreign Ministry. Ari is a highly requested speaker at AIPAC events, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science", and his speaking events are regularly sold-out. Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA and Canada. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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