What can be sadder than a man who works so hard for what seems to be so little?
At first glance, Abraham seems to be a loser. He is directed by G-d to wander the earth as a nomad. One of these days, G-d would tell Abraham his destination. His service to G-d appears flawed. When Abraham sealed a covenant with G-d, the former spent all day trying to save his sacrifice from being grabbed by the buzzards. He braved evil kings who repeatedly abducted his righteous wife. He accrued great wealth but remained childless well into old age.
In contrast, Noah was given a clear direction by G-d: Build an ark and let the animals in. At the ripe age of 500, Noah managed to time the birth of his children to ensure that they would not be old enough to be responsible for their sins when the world was flooded. He was blessed with divine grace. The sole sacrifice brought by Noah was so impressive that G-d vowed never to destroy the world again. After the flood, Noah took a vacation — for the next 350 years. G-d seemed to have left him alone in retirement.
Abraham worked hard in every area of his life. His talks with G-d seemed to have been marked by broken promises. Yet, he was selected to be the father of the Jewish people. And Noah faded into oblivion.
The Talmud and Midrash speak extensively of Adam, Noah and Abraham. Adam and Noah were given important, albeit limited, tasks. Adam named the animals and took care of the Garden of Eden. When he ate from the Tree of Knowledge, his mission essentially ended.
Noah was chosen to save a remnant of mankind. He spent 120 years building the ark to the jeers of the wicked. After the flood and the division of the world, Noah was not heard from again.
The Talmud says Abraham’s role required that he follow Adam and Noah. Abraham would repair the damage that his two predecessors had wrought. Adam lost the Garden of Eden; Abraham would create a garden of holiness in the Land of Canaan. Noah would curse his son Ham and watch his children resettle far from home. Abraham would build a family that he would never abandon.
In other words, Abraham was a fixer. And the fixer always comes last, although eventually becomes the most valuable member of the group. The fixer is not necessarily the most talented or bright. What distinguishes him is his commitment to get the job done.
I knew somebody like that. He worked for a large organization and had dreams of rapid promotion that didn’t materialize. Instead, he became a troubleshooter, sent from one problematic department to another, where he reorganized and sometimes even rebuilt. When there was a bottleneck, he was the go-to guy. And eventually, the promotions came because he had become so vital that the organization could not imagine working without him.
When you read the Torah about Noah and Abraham, you see many points of commonality. They both maintained their goodness in a hostile world, served G-d totally and were challenged by errant children.
But there are also differences. Noah was silent when G-d said he would destroy the world. Abraham respectfully sought to annul G-d’s plans to destroy a single city.
Noah was resigned to the evil of the world. Abraham set out to fight it, whether it was introducing the outlawed dogma of monotheism or challenging the dictatorship of Nimrod.
After the flood, Noah separated from his family. There is no record of his opposition to the wars among his children. There is no mention of Noah’s wife Naama.
In contrast, Abraham was devoted to Sarai, later Sarah. He stuck with his wife although she was diagnosed as barren. He took a concubine at Sarai’s request and eventually begot a son Ishmael. When Sarah detected the arrogance of her servant, she was gone. Even when G-d told Abraham that he would have a son from Sarah, his first concern was the fate of Ishmael. Abraham remained loyal to Lot and saved his life at least twice. Until the end, the patriarch would maintain his trust in his servant, Eliezer, even assigning him the task of finding a wife for Issac, the son that G-d had promised Sarah.
Noah, the second oldest man in history, did not lead a charmed retirement. Soon after the flood, he stood helpless as he saw evil return to the new world.
Abraham’s life ended prematurely. He never saw the realization of G-d’s promise to make him the father of a great nation. But in death Abraham became the father of the world. He was the prototype of service to G-d, the first to follow the command of circumcision, the test of faith for every Jewish male. He has remained the leader of the patriarchs, the first to be welcomed into our Succah. And three times a day, we utter the blessing “Bless be thou, G-d, the shield of Abraham.”
The Talmud says that toward the end of his life the ancient Noah met up with young Abraham. Noah had seen Abraham reject his father’s idolatry, stand up to Nimrod and spread the word of G-d. Noah was wistful: Perhaps he should have never retired from service to G-d.
It is not recorded what Abraham responded to Noah. The likelihood is that Abraham merely shrugged and went back to work.