This D’var Torah is in Z’chus L’Ilui Nishmas my sister Kayla Rus Bas Bunim Tuvia A”H, my grandfather Dovid Tzvi Ben Yosef Yochanan A”H, & my great aunt Rivkah Sorah Bas Zev Yehuda HaKohein in Z’chus L’Refuah Shileimah for:
-My father Bunim Tuvia Ben Channa Freidel
-My grandfather Moshe Ben Breindel, and my grandmothers Channah Freidel Bas Sarah, and Shulamis Bas Etta
-Miriam Liba Bas Devora
-Mordechai Shlomo Ben Sarah Tili
-And all of the Cholei Yisrael
-It should also be a Z’chus for an Aliyah of the holy Neshamah of Dovid Avraham Ben Chiya Kehas—R’ Dovid Winiarz ZT”L as well as the Neshamos of those whose lives were taken in terror attacks (Hashem Yikom Damam), and a Z’chus for success for Tzaha”l as well as the rest of Am Yisrael, in Eretz Yisrael and in the Galus.
נֹחַ ~ Noach
“Noach through the Ages”
|[6:9] “These are the progeny of Noach; Noach was a righteous man, wholesome [innocent] in his generation…”||אֵ֚לֶּה תּֽוֹלְדֹ֣ת נֹ֔חַ נֹ֗חַ אִ֥ישׁ צַדִּ֛יק תָּמִ֥ים הָיָ֖ה בְּדֹֽרֹתָ֑יו
Noach is undoubtedly one of the most well-known personalities in the entire Torah, among adults and children, Jews and gentiles, religious and secular. Perhaps it helps that Noach was the only survivor of a Flood that wiped out all of mankind. Everyone is at least somewhat familiar with the story of “Noah’s Ark,” and how he cared for all the animals on it. It is definitely a fascinating story for people of all ages.
And among most people, Noach is remembered for his steadfast righteousness. Indeed, the Torah uniquely describes him as an unmistakable “Tzaddik,” unmatched in his generation [Bereishis 6:9], which is why, of course, G-d chose to spare the line of mankind through him alone. This is certainly the way Noach is portrayed in the simple text of the Torah, it is how Noach is widely received in non-Jewish circles, and it is really how we typically portray Noach when teaching our young children.
But then, in the traditional Jewish circle, when one gets a little bit older, around the age when one is able to start learning Rashi’s commentary, one is eventually exposed to and perhaps startled by the “other side” of Noach, the school of thought among Chazzal who Darshan (expound) the verses of our Sidrah “L’G’nai”-“as deprecation” or criticism of Noach [based on Rashi following Tanchuma 5 and Bereishis Rabbah 30:9].
Of course, there is really only one Noach whom no one denies was a righteous person, but the question of Chazzal is a matter of perspective. He is distinctively labeled by the Torah a Tzaddik and that cannot be taken away from him. However, Chazzal, as they do throughout Torah, read between the lines and capitalize on the deeper implications of the Torah narrative, and have been able to identify patterns in both G-d’s voice and Noach’s conduct that suggest that even Noach could have done more and should have been better. For example, even among those who understand the Torah’s evaluation of Noach as being overwhelmingly positive, he was not on the level of Avraham Avinu (who wasn’t even called a Tzaddik), thus, the haunting question is whether or not Noach could have been greater and whether or not he is to be judged for not doing so.
R’ Chaim Shmulewitz cites the Zohar who takes the criticism of Noach even further suggesting famously that when the Navi refers to the Flood as “Mei Noach”-“Waters of Noach” [Yishaiyah 54:9], Scripture was attributing the Flood to Noach, because, perhaps, had Noach done more to influence the people of his generation, he might’ve been able to prevent the Flood from happening altogether, and that had he at least prayed for the generation as did Avraham for Sodom, the Flood would not have been called by his name.
So, yes, when revisiting Parshas Noach annually at a more mature age, all we really hear about is what Noach could’ve been. But, again, it is not until way after we’re introduced to “Noach the Tzaddik” that we’re taught about “Noach the possible mediocre.”
And the reason for that might be obvious, and that is that, really, according to the simple reading of the story, Noach was great, and no matter how you want to read the further implications, the Torah calls him a Tzaddik. That is why most people, certainly in non-Jewish or less religious circles relate to Noach that way, making no reference to any of the faults underscored by the Rabbis of the Jewish tradition. Certainly, to harp on Noach’s possible character flaws would mean to enter a complex, gray area that is not explicitly elaborated on in the story. So, unless one is holding by the Jewish tradition or one is ingeniously well-versed in Biblical exegesis, one will never notice any other perspectives of Noach.
And in truth, this phenomenon is not exclusive to Noach. Throughout the Torah and Jewish tradition, Chazzal demonstrate how every text has subtle subtext which takes us deeper into the story, and gives us a more vibrant and sophisticated understanding of the story, an understanding that will go unnoticed by people outside the tradition.
However, what is still perhaps a little peculiar is that with regards to Noach particularly, is that Chazzal—the bearers of Jewish tradition—simultaneously subscribe to and teach both perspectives of Noach, and yet one of these very accepted perspectives seems to be saved for later. It’s odd considering that the bulk of the exegesis that takes place in Parshas Noach nitpicks at his flaws, yet, when we’re all initially introduced to Noach, we’re only taught about the simple perspective of Noach. We might contrast Noach from individuals like Lavan, for example, whose personality is relatively mild in the text, we’re told from even a young age about the sub-textual implications from Chazzal, that Lavan was a wicked man. In fact, most of the time, even from a young age, we’re taught to learn Torah through Chazzal’s lenses, growing up familiar with all sorts of teachings of the Midrash—of course, the ones that are age-appropriate. And, we’re taught these traditions because they are the tradition, and because they contain crucial lessons and perspectives which Chazzal wanted us to learn and adopt for life. No differently in our case, Chazzal have taught us about the “other side” of Noach so that we could understand that even for the good and righteous, there is what to work on. And yes, when the child has been in a religious, Jewish day school for a few years, he is eventually taught about this view of Noach so that he can internalize those lessons too. However, the initial exposure to Noach does not involve the nitpicking of Noach which is so prevalent in Chazzal’s evaluation of the story. If Noach could have been so much greater than he was, why does it suffice for a young child to hear nothing passed “Noach the Tzaddik”?
Now, the reason for this difference might be similar to that which we’ve suggested above, that despite the fact that we generally teach children about the traditions of Chazzal, perhaps this dual perspective of Noach is too complicated, the idea that he could be the most righteous person, but also have crucial flaws. “Noach the Tzaddik” is the simplest perspective of the story and it’s not a false representation at all, as in fact, Chazzal also subscribe to that reading, so why should we complicate things for children by zeroing in on every one of Noach’s flaws?
In truth, that would probably be a fair answer. And perhaps that has to suffice because Noach as a complex character is exactly that, just too complex. Children can only comprehend what’s black on white, and until they’ve reached a certain age, anything in between black and white will be way over their heads. As such, like any adult content, we’ll just have to share the “other side” of Noach with them when they’re a little bit older. In the meantime, they will just have to enjoy the imagery of the Ark, the animals, and the rainbow, while the real lesson in the larger scheme of Noach’s story go unlearned.
But, maybe, there is actually a crucial lesson that is truly age-appropriate for our children, beyond the fun story even in the plain version of the Noach story. If the young child knows nothing else about Noach than the fact that he was a righteous man, would that not be a take-home lesson?
Thus far, we’ve already noted that the complex version Noach would just be too confusing for children to understand. After all, Noach was righteous and he was not punished. To a child, that’s a victory and it’s not only an easy concept to understand, but a correct concept. For a child, that is really okay, and perhaps even perfect. Because, the truth is that as much as people like to think that children are angels, they are born with no concept of ethics and moral development. That a child is born selfish, leaning towards evil, is sourced in our very Sidrah, as G-d says [8:21], “…Ki Yeitzer Leiv HaAdam Ra Mi’Ne’urav…”-“…for the inclination of the heart of man is evil from its youth…” In that vein, a child cannot begin to compare good to better, or between bad to worse, because child is still learning to differentiate between good and bad. And that’s exactly what the simple version of Noach gives us, an important, fundamental depiction of good and bad.
Consider how the Generation of the Flood was guilty of many disgusting and corrupt crimes. We’re not immediately exposed to all of their crimes as children, but even then, we’re at least made aware of the fact that the people would steal from one another. And if a young child is able to learn from the story of Noach that while the rest of the world would be punished for stealing, Noach was a “good person” who would not steal, that would be an excellent accomplishment for that child. Moreover, it is not, by any stretch a disloyal reading of the story. It’s perfect. And at that tender age, to go any further into the righteous individual’s character flaws, as important as they were, would confuse the child.
But as fair as the simple reading of Noach is, Chazzal apparently deemed the “complex version” to be crucial, so much so, that if a mature adult were to walk away from Parshas Noach with the simple reading alone, it would be insufficient. He would be missing something. That is because it is simply not enough to just go through life not being a bad person who steals and commits crimes. Even if one had become a Tzaddik, the greatest in his generation, the Torah implies that there is always what to work on. And the danger of a morally developed adult having only the simple version of Noach is that it can easily lull that person into a false sense of self-righteousness when all he did was not act like a sociopath. Because when that happens—when we think that we’re spiritually accomplished when we’ve merely refrained from stealing, we just continue to live our adult lives as children. We limit ourselves to spiritual mediocrity. And even if that’s the accepted standard for the Noahides that make up most of the world, for the children of Avraham, that cannot be enough.
Noach was a Tzaddik like no one in his time. He had a profound grasp on morality and the Will of G-d. But he might’ve still limited himself from being what he could have been. When we’ve matured from childhood and the basic concept of morality has become a given, we have to start challenging ourselves and asking the same questions that Chazzal feel that Noach should have asked himself: Am I doing as much as I could be? Do I have the spiritual capacity to be doing more? Can I be doing better?
May we all be Zocheh to of course live moral lives and strive to be Tzaddikim, but also to continually challenge ourselves to maximize our spiritual potentials and exceed them, and Hashem will not merely spare us, but grant us the ultimate Geulah in the days of Moshiach, Bimheirah Biyomeinu! Have a Great Shabbos Rosh Chodesh MarCheshvan!
-Josh, Yehoshua Shmuel Eisenberg 🙂