Did you ever wonder why Noach did not convince anyone beyond his own family to take refuge in the Ark? Maybe it’s because of his approach. Noach spent 120 years building an ark with the hope that curiosity seekers will stop and ask what he’s doing. Noach’s pitch was that society had become so corrupt that God is sending a flood to wipe out all those who don’t repent. His message was a little off-putting, to say the least. Like the guy in Manhattan’s Time Square holding a sign “The world is coming to an end.” Noach would not be offered the job as an outreach professional at Aish HaTorah or a “Shaliach” (emissary) for Chabad.
Compare Noach’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. Loving Kindness – now that’s a way to start a dialogue about God.
Noach and the industrial revolution
Midrash Tanchuma turns these assumptions about Noach on their head. Rather than wonder why anyone would have believed Noach, 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 Noach means comfort and consolation.
‘וַיִּקְרָ֧א אֶת־שְׁמ֛וֹ נֹ֖חַ לֵאמֹ֑ר זֶ֠ה יְנַחֲמֵ֤נוּ מִֽמַּעֲשֵׂ֙נוּ֙ וּמֵעִצְּב֣וֹן יָדֵ֔ינוּ מִן־הָ֣אֲדָמָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר אֵֽרְרָ֖הּ ה
“And he named him Noach, 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 Noach brought about:
וּמַהוּ מִמַּעֲשֵׂנוּ וּמֵעִצְּבוֹן יָדֵינוּ. קֹדֶם שֶׁנּוֹלַד נֹחַ, לֹא כְּשֶׁהָיוּ זוֹרְעִין הָיוּ קוֹצְרִין, אֶלָּא הָיוּ זוֹרְעִין חִטִּים וְקוֹצְרִים קוֹצִים וְדַרְדָּרִים. כֵּיוָן שֶׁנּוֹלַד נֹחַ, חָזַר הָעוֹלָם לְיִשּׁוּבוֹ, קָצְרוּ מַה שֶּׁזָּרְעוּ, זוֹרְעִין חִטִּין וְקוֹצְרִין חִטִּין. שְׂעוֹרִים וְקוֹצְרִין שְׂעוֹרִים. וְלֹא עוֹד אֶלָּא עַד שֶׁלֹּא נוֹלַד נֹחַ עוֹשִׂין מְלָאכָה בִּידֵיהֶם לְכָךְ כְּתִיב וּמֵעִצְּבוֹן יָדֵינוּ. נוֹלָד נֹחַ הִתְקִין לָהֶם מַחֲרֵשׁוֹת וּמַגָּלוֹת וְקַרְדֻּמּוֹת וְכָל כְּלֵי מְלָאכָה.
“Prior to Noach’s birth, men did not reap what they sowed. They would sow wheat and reap thorns and thistles, but when Noach was born, the world reverted to normal: Wheat was sown and wheat was reaped; barley was sown and barley was reaped. Furthermore, prior to Noach’s birth, men performed all their labor by hand, as it is written: ‘And from the toil of our hands,’ but after Noach was he invented plows, scythes, axes, and other implements” (Midrash Tanchuma Bereishis, 11:5).
Noach’s advancements disrupted the world’s methods of farming. He invented farming implements in an agrarian society. He brought ease and efficiency to the fundamental task of feeding the world. Furthermore, in his honor, God 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 Noach. We are talking about the most famous and admired man in the world. Yet not one person outside of Noach’s immediate family joined him. That, according to Midrash Tanchuma, is the story of Noach and the ark.
Life was good until is wasn’t
Midrash Tanchuma makes another statement which may explain why no one took Noach seriously. It seems that when Abraham came on the scene ten generations after Noach, he had a theological issue with the crime and punishment of those who perished in the flood. For Abraham to question the morality of God should come as no surprise since Abraham was the one who negotiated with God 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 God’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.*
Thanks to Abraham, we now have a world full of personal struggles to provide wake up calls.**
Midrash Tanchuma presents two seemingly contradictory insights into the story of Noach and the flood. First, that people should have been drawn towards Noach’s message because of his extraordinary achievements to society and his unique relationship with God. Second, that they had no particular reason to believe Noach’s claim that God was angry at them because they didn’t experience any hardships or challenges. There was no hint that God was displeased with the way they lived their lives.
Perhaps this balance is precisely what God had in mind.
It’s God’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.
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 blunt the potential good in adversity . According to Midrash Tanchuma, Noach inadvertently provided Satan with this great tool in his tool chest – drunkenness:
אָמְרוּ רַבּוֹתֵינוּ זִכְרוֹנָם לִבְרָכָה: כְּשֶׁבָּא נֹחַ לִטַּע כֶּרֶם, בָּא שָׂטָן וְעָמַד לְפָנָיו. אָמַר לוֹ: מָה אַתָּה נוֹטֵעַ? אָמַר לוֹ: כֶּרֶם. אָמַר לוֹ: מַה טִּיבוֹ? אָמַר לוֹ: פֵּרוֹתָיו מְתוּקִים, בֵּין לַחִים בֵּין יְבֵשִׁים, וְעוֹשִׂין מֵהֶן יַיִן הַמְשַׂמֵּחַ לְבָבוֹת, דִּכְתִיב: וְיַיִן יְשַׂמַּח לְבַב
אֱנוֹשׁ (תהלים קד, טו). אָמַר לוֹ שָׂטָן, בֹּא וְנִשְׁתַּתֵּף שְׁנֵינוּ בְּכֶרֶם זֶה. אָמַר לוֹ: לְחַיֵּי.
“Our teachers of blessed memory stated: While Noach 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 Noach),…Satan suggested: “Come, let us be partners in this vineyard.” And Noach replied: “Certainly” (Ibid, 13:4)
Satan then watered the vineyard by slaughtering a lamb, lion, ape and a pig. Midrash Tanchuma explains the symbolism:
קֹּדֶם שֶׁיִּשְׁתֶּה אָדָם מִן הַיַּיִן, הֲרֵי הוּא תָּם כְּכֶבֶשׂ זוֹ שֶׁאֵינָהּ יוֹדַעַת כְּלוּם, וּכְרָחֵל לִפְנֵי גוֹזְזֶיהָ נֶאֱלָמָה. שָׁתָה כְּהֹגֶן, הֲרֵי הוּא גִּבּוֹר כָּאֲרִי וְאוֹמֵר אֵין כְּמוֹתוֹ בָעוֹלָם. כֵּיוָן שֶׁשָּׁתָה יוֹתֵר מִדַּי, נַעֲשָׂה כַּחֲזִיר מִתְלַכְלֵךְ בְּמֵי רַגְלַיִם וּבְדָבָר אַחֵר. נִשְׁתַּכֵּר, נַעֲשָׂה כְּקוֹף עוֹמֵד וּמְרַקֵּד וּמְשַׂחֵק וּמוֹצִיא לִפְנֵי הַכֹּל נִבְלוּת הַפֶּה, וְאֵינוֹ יוֹדֵעַ מַה יַּעֲשֶׂה. וְכָל זֶה, אֵרַע לְנֹחַ הַצַּדִּיק. מָה, נֹחַ הַצַּדִּיק שֶׁהַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא פֵּרַשׁ שִׁבְחוֹ, כָּךְ. שְׁאָר בְּנֵי אָדָם עַל אַחַת כַּמָּה וְכַמָּה.
“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” (Ibid)
Dulling the senses. Deflecting the messages
What an irony. Before the flood, Noach was ignored because society had no adversity from which to grow and change its ways. After the flood, Noach tries to find solace from the trauma of seeing the world come to an end. So, unwittingly, he introduces a great tool for humanity to drown out their troubles and ignore the adversity in their life. Adversity that had the potential *as Avraham envisioned) to help mankind learn, grow and realize the error of their ways.
It seems that, once again, God has restored free will.
*אָמַר אַבְרָהָם לִפְנֵי הַקָּבָּ”ה, רִבּוֹנוֹ שֶׁל עוֹלָם, אִלּוּלֵי נָתַתָּ שַׁלְוָה לְדוֹר הַמַּבּוּל, לֹא הָיוּ מַכְעִיסִין וּמוֹרְדִין וְאוֹמְרִים סוּר מִמֶּנּוּ (איוב כא, יג). אָמַר לוֹ: מִמְּךָ אֲנִי מַתְחִיל. לְפִיכָךְ נִתְיַסֵּר בִּבְנוֹ,.
“Abraham said to God: ‘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, God 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 Noach, 14:3).
**The Talmud says that if a person goes forty days without experiencing at least minimal setback (which the Talmud considers to be even minor inconveniences) then it’s a sign that God has cut off his relationship with that person:
וכל כך למה דתניא דבי רבי ישמעאל כל שעברו עליו ארבעים יום בלא יסורין קיבל עולמו במערבא אמרי פורענות מזדמנת לו
“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)