A Righteous Man in His Generation?: Noach
Noach: Genesis 6:9 – 11:32
There is a thought-provoking Midrash about Noah from this week’s Torah portion that details a debate between two rabbis as to why the biblical author begins with introducing Noah as “a righteous man in his generation.” [Gen. 6:9] Why, the rabbis ask, insist on specifying “in his generation?”
Rabbi Yehudah said: Only in his generation was he a righteous man [by comparison]; had he flourished in the generation of Moses or Samuel, he would not have been called righteous: in the street of the totally blind, the one-eyed man is called clear-sighted… Rabbi Nechemiah said: If he was righteous even in his generation, how much more so [had he lived] in the age of Moses. [Midrash Rabbah – Genesis XXX, 9]
We recall from Noah’s story that—in his generation—corruption, violence and lawlessness reigned supreme in the world, which prompted God to decide to wipe the human race from the face of the earth through a great flood. Compared to the rest of humanity, the Torah tells us that Noah was a “tzadik:” the embodiment of justice. He was “tamim:” wholehearted, innocent and humble. His name itself means peaceful, quiescent, and equanimous. Our text goes so far as to specify that “Noah walked with God.” [Gen. 6:9] This is who Noah was, so God spared him.
At first sight, one would be tempted to side with Rabbi Nechemiah in his assessment of Noah’s righteousness. We see in our time, with our generation wrestling still with corruption, violence and lawlessness, that the voice of the just is drowned by the cacophony of mind-numbing distraction that overwhelms us. In a highly materialistic world, surrounded on all sides by a culture of greed that relentlessly tugs at our ego to get more, be more, have more, regardless of the hurt and the devastation that come in the wake of our race to self-destruction, who has the capacity to remain impervious? When the world around offers us a non-stop whirlwind of diversion, it takes a virtually inhuman feat of character to stay untouched, quiescent and equanimous; to stave off those influences and preserve one’s integrity, ethics and authenticity.
But Rabbi Yehudah’s argument is just as legitimate. For even when Noah was the quintessential personification of justice, humility, peace and equanimity, he lacked a certain quality that would allow him to stand with the likes of Moses or the prophet Samuel. Yes, Noah “walked with God;” but for Rabbi Yehudah he did so a little too blindly. To understand why, we need to look back at our story. Right after we are introduced to Noah, we immediately see God openly telling him of His genocidal plan. He at once orders Noah to build an ark and tells him precisely how to do it. He commands him to take on board the precious cargo He specifies, giving him the most detailed instructions. God is clearly in charge, controlling every aspect of the project. Noah isn’t even the one to shut the door of the ark once the waters begin to rise; God does! We read, time and again, that “Noah did just as God had commanded him: that is what he did.” [Gen. 6:22] Even when he knows with certainty that the waters have receded and that it would be safe to leave the ark, Noah waits for God to order him out. Noah displays a total lack of initiative, and his silence his deafening. He quiescently obeys. And that is Rabbi Yehudah’s point; Moses and Samuel would never have remained silent in the face of God’s declaration of intentions. They would have stood up to God, challenged Him, and forcefully argued with Him to spare the lives of millions. What good does it do to reach the spiritual heights that Noah reached if it doesn’t infuse a way of being in the world that is fiercely compassionate, uncompromisingly loving and caring? Spirituality cannot exist in a vacuum, certainly not in our generation. It has to translate into concrete actions to benefit others, heal the planet, and support the stirring of a transformed dreamer, dreaming a different dream for our world.