2 Kislev 5778
20 November 2017
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London School of Jewish Studies


Noach, the central figure of this week’s parshah, is a bit of a conundrum. On one hand, he is described as ‘a righteous man, blameless in his generation’ (Gen. 6: 9), but on the other hand, when told by God that every living thing on earth is about to be wiped out in a huge flood, he doesn’t turn a hair. He doesn’t protest – as Abraham does later on, when told by God of the impending destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah – and he doesn’t rush off and warn his contemporaries. In fact, he doesn’t say anything at all to anyone until he comes out with a curse against his grandson Canaan and a blessing for his sons Shem and Japhet. For most of the parshah he silently obeys God’s commands, but shows no reaction and no initiative.

The rabbis of the midrash were aware of Noah’s shortcomings, and interpreted the phrase ‘blameless in his generation’ to mean that, in any other generation – such as that of Abraham – he wouldn’t have been considered particularly virtuous (Midrash Tanchuma, Noach: 5). They went on to compare Noach with Abraham, and found him lacking: a midrashic parable in Bereshit Rabba 30:10 compares Abraham and Noach to two sons of a king (symbolizing God): while the elder son (Abraham) is mature enough to walk some distance in front of his father, the younger son (Noach) has to hold his father’s hand and walk with him. The rabbis see Noah as less developed spiritually, less able to act independently. He is not a bad person, but he has a certain passive quality that holds him back from true greatness.

Another midrash (Tanchuma, Noach: 14) places Noach and Abraham in a list of four biblical figures, each of whom is credited with inventing or beginning four things. Noach invents agriculture, cursing, slavery, and drunkenness – one positive and three negative. Abraham is responsible for old age, suffering, hospitality and inheritance – three positives (depending on how you view old age!) and one negative. Interestingly, the other two figures in the list are another pair whom the midrash loves to compare: Moses, all of whose inventions are positive, and Bilaam, all of whose innovations are negative. There seems to be a continuum here, from the totally negative pole of Bilaam, through the mixed-but-tending-to-negative Noach, on to the mixed-but-tending-to-positive Abraham, up to the purely positive pole of Moses.

Thus the rabbis see Noach as someone with potential, but limited by a lack of maturity, independence, and imagination. Abraham represents the next stage in the long, slow process of perfecting oneself: he is more active, more questioning, more likely to take the initiative and act, whether in welcoming strangers, defending sinners, or rescuing those in trouble. We can learn something from both these figures, and in particular, can resolve to move on from our Noach-level to a more engaged and energetic Abraham-level.