What to do with the character of Noach? This question arises in the wording of the very first pasuk of this week’s parsha: “Noach was a tzadik, he was perfect in his generation, Noach walked with G-d” (Bereishit, 6:9). Rashi famously quotes a disagreement about the words “in his generation”. Are they praising Noach, suggesting that he would have been even more righteous in a generation that was also righteous? Or are they criticising him, showing that he was only a tzadik in comparison to his evil generation? (Rashi, Bereishit, 6:9). The statement “Noach was a tzadik” is made ambiguous by this comment. Noach was righteous enough to be saved, yet he is also blamed for the flood (Isaiah, 45:9) and the nature of his greatness clearly bothered Chazal.
When Hashem tells Noach there will be a flood and commands him to build the teivah, the pesukim spend time detailing its exact materials and measurements. There were many ways Hashem could have saved Noach. Why did He trouble him with specifically building an ark? Rashi explains this was intentional. It was in order for the people of his generation to see him busy working on it for 120 years, so they would ask him what he was doing. And so he could tell them that Hashem was going to bring a flood to destroy them and that they should repent. (Rashi, Bereishit, 6:14).
Noach spent 120 years building the teivah. Specifically in order to encourage teshuva. And yet not a single person of the generation repented. In this kiruv project, Noach failed abysmally.
One explanation given for this is that Noach did not daven for his generation, or actively try to help them repent. Perhaps he saw them as too set in their evil ways to do teshuva and be saved. When Noach left the ark after the flood and was presented with the reality of a world being completely wiped out, he began to cry before Hashem. G-d replied “I constantly delayed [the flood] and I said ‘when is he going to ask for compassion for the world?’” (Zohar Hashmatot, Bereishit, 254b). Noach cries to Hashem on behalf of his generation, but he is too late. In the parsha, G-d is referred to as “Elokim”, a name connoting judgement as opposed to mercy (Rashi, Bereishit, 1:1). Noach related to G-d as a G-d of justice, punishing evil deeds, not as a G-d of compassion who could forgive sinners. So he does not even ask. He does not even try. He does not take responsibility. That’s why Isaiah partly attributes the flood to Noach himself.
After the flood, Hashem showed Noach a sign, promising that He would never send a flood to destroy the entire world again. That sign was a rainbow (Bereishit 9: 14-15). A rainbow appears amongst the clouds, a beautiful display of light and hope in the stormy darkness. Through this sign specifically Hashem is showing Noach that he was wrong not to ask. Every person has the potential to do good, to change, to become better. Even amongst the rainclouds, even when it seems like an entire generation is too stuck in wickedness to repent, there is the hope represented by the rainbow. Hashem is telling Noach that he should not have given up. That he should have tried harder, davened harder, taken more responsibility. Although Noach was saved, the flood and its aftermath had a negative impact on him. The first thing he does when he leaves the teivah is plant a vineyard and get drunk (Bereishit, 9:20-21). Don’t think it’s not your problem. It is.
Fittingly, the parsha of Noach always falls around Rosh Chodesh Cheshvan. The month of Cheshvan comes after the busy days of Elul and Tishrei, which were filled with preparation and mitzvot and chagim and a closeness to Hashem. In contrast, Cheshvan has no festivals. It is a month that stretches out, dark and cold and empty. The sign of the rainbow, which Hashem gave Noach, is also a sign for us. As winter approaches, as the rain falls, as it starts getting dark early, the rainbow appears – a flash of brightness and colour, a reminder of our potential, a symbol of hope.