Did you ever wonder why Noah did not convince anyone beyond his own family to take refuge in the Ark? Maybe it’s because of his approach. Noah spent 120 years building an ark with the hope that curiosity seekers will stop and ask what he’s doing. Noah’s pitch was that society had become so corrupt that G-d is sending a flood to wipe out all those who don’t repent. His message was a little off-putting, to say the least. Noah would not be offered the job as an outreach professional at Aish HaTorah or a “Shaliach” (emissary) for Chabad.
Compare Noah’s approach to influencing people with that of Abraham. Abraham stood at the intersection of well-travelled roads and invited strangers for a home cooked meal.
Now that’s a way to start a dialogue about G-d.
Noah and the industrial revolution
Midrash Tanchuma turns these assumptions about Noah on their head. Rather than wonder why anyone would have believed Noah, you have to wonder why they didn’t come in droves.
Let’s start with the verse in the Torah where he was born. We learn that Noah (pronounced Noach in Hebrew) means comfort and consolation.
“And he named him Noah, saying, “This one will provide us relief from our work and from the toil of our hands, from the very soil which the Lord cursed.” (Genesis 4:29)
Midrash Tanchuma describes the blessings and innovations that Noah brought about:
“Prior to Noah’s birth, men did not reap what they sowed. They would sow wheat and reap thorns and thistles, but when Noah was born, the world reverted to normal: Wheat was sown and wheat was reaped; barley was sown and barley was reaped. Furthermore, prior to Noah’s birth, men performed all their labor by hand, as it is written: ‘And from the toil of our hands,’ but after Noah was he invented plows, scythes, axes, and other implements”.
Noah’s advancements disrupted the world’s methods of farming. He invented farming implements in an agrarian society. He was Bill Gates, Henry Ford & the Wright brothers rolled into one. He brought ease and efficiency to the fundamental task of feeding the world. Furthermore, in his honor, G-d restored nature to the way it was intended at creation. Once again, if you planted barley, you got barley, not weeds.
Now let’s reboot the story of Noah. We are talking about the most famous and admired man in the world. Someone who dramatically bettered the lives of everyone on the planet. Is it plausible that this very same man was chosen by G-d to deliver a vital message to humanity. Most certainly. After all, it was only because Noah found favor in G-d’s eyes that the earth was now blessed.
Yet not one person outside of Noah’s immediate family joined him. That, according to Midrash Tanchuma, is the story of Noah and the ark.
Life was good until is wasn’t
Midrash Tanchuma makes another statement which may explain why no one took Noah seriously.
It seems that when Abraham came on the scene 10 generations after Noah, he had a theological issue with the crime and punishment of those who perished in the flood. For Abraham to question the morality of G-d should come as no surprise since Abraham was the one who negotiated with G-d in an effort to spare the wicked people of Sodom and Gomorrah.
Abraham believed that when people experience difficulties in life it can cause them to reflect on their deeds. It’s G-d’s way of sending us messages. We can listen to those messages and grow from these tests or choose to ignore them. Either way, it seems that this method of running the world was not in effect before the flood. Abraham thought it was unfair because it might have brought more people to question their ways and repent, rather than perish in the flood:
“Abraham said to the Holy One, Blessed Be He: ‘Master of the Universe, if You hadn’t made the generation of the flood feel so content and secure, they would not have angered You or rebelled against You … Thereupon, G-d said to him: I shall begin with you (to infuse life with hardships and misfortunes). Therefore he (Abraham) experienced trials and tribulations in regards to his son (Isaac).”
Midrash Tanchuma presents 2 seemingly contradictory insights into the story of Noah and the flood. First, that people should have been drawn towards Noah’s message because of his extraordinary achievements and his unique relationship with G-d. Second, that they had no particular reason to believe Noah’s claim that G-d was angry at them because they didn’t experience any hardships or challenges. There was no hint that G-d was displeased with the way they lived their lives.
Perhaps this balance is precisely what G-d had in mind.
It’s G-d’s will that we have free will
The flood was not meant to engender mass repentance through scare tactics. Quite the opposite. Humankind had the free will to choose between the advice of the highest trending tech superstar or a selfish, pleasure seeking life with seemingly no divine consequences. Perhaps the Midrash is letting us know this was the delicate balance needed to insure free will.
In last week’s Parsha, Cain expressed remorse for killing his brother only after his punishment was spelled out, yet it was greeted by G-d with open arms. Here too, they ignored Noah during the 120 years of building the ark. And even after the flood started G-d would still have welcomed anyone who sought to enter the ark.
No one did.
Thanks to Abraham, we now have a world full of personal struggles to provide wake up calls. In fact the Talmud says that if a person goes 40 days without experiencing at least minimal suffering (which the Talmud considers to be even minor inconveniences) then it’s a sign that G-d has cut off his relationship with that person:
“And why is it so important to know the least amount of suffering? As the school of Rabbi Yishmael taught in a baraita: Anyone who passes forty days without suffering has received his World, i.e., his reward, and he will have no further reward in the World-to-Come. In the West, (Eretz Yisrael) they say: A calamity awaits him.” (Tractate Arachin 16B)
Wine. A great source of happiness and misery.
Although Abraham was the one to make this request for adversity in life, it seems that Satan was already building a war chest of methods to afflict the world. According to Midrash Tanchuma, Noah inadvertently provided Satan with a great tool in his tool chest – drunkenness:
“Our teachers of blessed memory stated: While Noah was planting the vineyard, Satan appeared before him and asked: “What are you planting?” He answered: “A vineyard.” “What is it?” inquired Satan… “from this one produces a wine that causes the heart of man to rejoice (replied Noah),…Satan suggested: “Come, let us be partners in this vineyard.” And Noah replied: “Certainly.”
Satan then watered the vineyard by slaughtering a lamb, lion, ape and a pig. Midrash Tanchuma explains the symbolism:
“Before drinking wine, man is as innocent as a sheep: …But after he drinks a moderate amount of wine he believes himself to be as strong as a lion, boasting that no one in all the world is his equal. When he drinks more than he should, he behaves like a pig, wallowing about in urine and performing other base acts. After he becomes completely intoxicated, he behaves like an ape, dancing about, laughing hysterically, speaking foolishly, and is completely unaware of what he is doing.”
Dulling the senses. Deflecting the messages.
What an irony. Noah was ignored because society had no adversity from which to grow and change its ways. Noah tries to find solace from the trauma of seeing the world come to an end. So, unwittingly, he introduces such a great tool for humanity to drown out their troubles, they are able to ignore the very messages that G-d was trying to send them in the first place.