The Riddle Called Noah
These are the generations of Noah, Noah was a righteous man; he was perfect in his generations; Noah walked with G-d.
Never has a man been in a more difficult position than Noah. He was nearly 500 years old when told by G-d that the world will be destroyed. Noah was commanded to build an ark that would take 120 years. He would use this project to explain to people that G-d plans to destroy the world unless they repented.
It didn’t go well. The people, especially the prominent, jeered and threatened him. They might allow him to build this massive structure, but they would never let Noah take refuge in it.
And yet the sages say that Noah was a righteous man in his generations. But he couldn’t match up to those who came after him. Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, known as Rashi, says had Noah lived in the generation of Abraham he would have been “regarded as nothing.” The Zohar and the Midrash say Noah could have never compared to Moses.
The Torah, however, uses the term “perfect” in describing Noah, something it doesn’t do with either Abraham or Moses. Can one be “perfect” and at the same time “nothing”?
Noah’s fate was unlike anybody’s in the history of mankind. He found favor in G-d’s eyes, listened to everything He said, and in the end watched everything that he cherished destroyed. Noah was the embodiment of the righteous man in Psalms 11:
When the foundations are destroyed, what has the righteous done?
It would be hard to find somebody who worked more for the good of mankind than Noah. As a young man, he watched his cousin Enosh lead the world away from G-d and toward idolatry. Enosh discovered iron and used it to make weapons.
Noah also found iron. He fashioned this ore into plows, used to plant seeds and remove the thorns and thistles that prevented the growth of crops. He ended global hunger.
G-d poured his wrath on the generation of Enosh and destroyed one-third of humanity when the Atlantic Ocean flooded numerous communities. Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev writes that G-d could tolerate idolatry but could not accept man’s inhumanity to his brother. The weapons of Enosh ensured that man could kill and maim.
But mankind quickly shook off the flood and returned to evil. The generation of Noah — Enosh had died when Noah was 84 — was now stained by venality and immorality. The sons of the powerful rampaged through society, raping, killing and stealing at will. A son of a judge or minister could pass a wedding ceremony and grab the bride from the canopy. Nothing was sacred; nothing was off-limits. Might meant right.
Noah wasn’t sure he could survive such a world. He also didn’t see any point in having children. They might turn out the same way as the evil youngsters who terrorized society. He delayed having children until he was 500 years old, near the time that his family would enter the ark.
Although he lived in an evil generation, Abraham never faced these challenges. Neither did Moses. Abraham had a faithful and devout servant named Eliezer. Moses could count on his older brother Aaron. There is nothing to indicate that Noah had anybody.
Yet the Midrash suggests that Noah was dismissed by the righteous who came after him. It records an exchange between Noah and Moses that is filled with pathos.
“I am greater than you,” Noah told Moses.
“You saved yourself,” Moses responded. “And you didn’t have the strength to save your generation.”
Noah was unique. But he lacked something that was an essential part of Abraham and Moses. Noah had the stamina to rebuke his generation for 120 years, warning them of the disaster that would wipe out the world.
In a different time, Noah’s method might have sufficed. Jonah was commanded by G-d to warn the city of Nineveh that it would be destroyed. The city of 120,000 fasted and repented. G-d suspended His decree. Noah, however, had no such luck.
Abraham and Moses were teachers. Abraham walked the earth urging people to discard idols and embrace G-d. His wife, Sarah, did the same. They built a community based on charity and love, turning pagans into holy people.
Moses spent 40 years teaching Torah to the Children of Israel. He repeated his lessons at least four times a day so that everybody would understand. He didn’t withhold criticism; he didn’t flinch from protesting wrong. But he made sure his flock also knew what was right.
Noah and his family survived the flood. But the old man had little to celebrate. While drunk, he was raped and castrated by his son Ham who didn’t want more brothers to dilute his share of the world. Soon, Noah’s grandchildren decided they would make war on G-d to prevent another flood. Monotheism was outlawed. One of Ham’s descendants, Nimrod, declared himself a divinity.
Abraham, whose father was Nimrod’s chief minister, fled to the mountains and studied with Noah and his son Shem. The young refugee learned about the flood and even Adam. After nearly 39 years, the sages say, Abraham knew he could no longer remain in the safety of Noah’s home. He had to teach the world about G-d even if that meant confronting Nimrod.
Noah watched as Abraham prepared to leave. Abraham was going to save the world by spreading the word of G-d.
Noah concluded that he should have done the same and perhaps there never would have been a flood. But that was a long time ago. He was now in Abraham’s generation and, as Rashi said, Noah no longer counted.