Contrasting Noah And Abraham
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Shabbat Noach

Contrasting Noah And Abraham

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat.

“Noah was a righteous man, whole-hearted in his generations; Noah walked with God” [Genesis 6:9].

Was Noah truly righteous? What does true righteousness entail? The opening verse suggests that it’s an open and shut case. Does any other figure in the Torah receive three adulatory statements in one verse? Not even Moses is called a tzadik (righteous man).

Rashi reminds us that although certain Sages look upon Noah favorably, others were meager with their praise. The text states, ‘righteous … in his generations.’ The Talmud [Sanhedrin 108a] suggests that there are two ways to interpret this qualifying phrase: on the one hand, if he is so worthy of praise in a generation so completely evil, how much more praiseworthy would he have been in the generation of Abraham when he would have had righteous company? On the other hand, perhaps the qualifying phrase suggests that Noah is only praiseworthy in comparison with his generation of scoundrels. Had he lived in the generation of Abraham, he would not even be worthy of mention.

But why even suggest the possibility that Noah is second-rate when the plain meaning of the text is so adulatory? Let us compare and contrast Noah and Abraham in similar circumstances. When Abraham is told that the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah are about to be destroyed, he argues with God: Will the Almighty destroy the righteous with the wicked, will not the Judge of the entire earth do justice? If there are 50 righteous men, 40 righteous men … even 10 righteous men, will the cities not be saved?

In stark contrast, when Noah is informed of the impending destruction of the world, he obediently goes about constructing a private ark to rescue himself, his family, and a requisite number of animals. While Abraham emerges as the missionary who breaks walls as well as idols, opening his tent in every direction to welcome and influence as many people as possible, Noah erects an enclosure.

Chasidism usually sided with Abraham in its biblical interpretations. Rabbi Jacob Joseph of Polnoy, the famous disciple of the Baal Shem Tov in the eighteenth century, writes in his Toldot Yakov Yosef that when the Torah describes Noah as “walking with God” it is a pejorative description. Noah walked only and exclusively with God, tragically neglecting the wayward individuals all around him. Noah missed the opportunity of bringing God to humanity.

On the other hand, the Ketav Sofer, probably reacting to the Haskala (Jewish Enlightenment) and the Reform movement which threatened the Orthodox community during his lifetime (1815-1871), utilizes his biblical commentary to justify turning inward. He argues that Noah was absolutely correct in maintaining the wall between himself and the world. After all, Noah had good reason to fear that if he went outside into the prevailing winds and currents, his own children might be tossed to the edges — and even cast beyond the pale — by wind’s strong impact. The risk wasn’t worth it.

Interestingly, the Ketav Sofer was projecting the view of his father, the Hatam Sofer, who insisted the behavior of the Prophet Samuel’s wayward children was a direct consequence of Samuel’s preaching all over Israel, returning home for only one visit each year. If you go out to save the world, you might lose your own children.

Clearly, there is no singular view in the biblical and rabbinic sources. However, it is not the inward Noah but the outgoing Abraham who is declared the first Jew. We are unequivocally commanded to teach our Jews who are straying from the path. Maimonides goes so far as to define the commandment to love God as directing us to ensure that God is beloved and known throughout the world, and insists that God instructed Moses to teach Israel the 613 commandments and the rest of the world the seven laws of morality. Further, our prophets instruct us to be a “light unto the nation.” The Torah defines our mission as a kingdom of priest-teachers, and the Aleinu prayer sets forth the vision of perfecting the world under God’s kingdom.

Faced with the contemporary challenges of assimilation and the alienation of many Jews from traditional Judaism, can one mediate a balanced position between the Abrahams and the Noahs, between the advocates of in-reach and outreach? 

I believe that the correct balance is suggested in Pirkei Avot [Ethics of Our Fathers 1:18]: “Rabban Shimon ben-Gamliel says: ‘the world endures on three things: justice, truth and peace…’” Justice, he explains, is the relationship between the Jew and his society, our obligation to the world-at-large. Peace, on the other hand, is ‘shalom bayit,’ the relationship between the Jew and his home, our obligation to family. Truth is the balanced combination of both.

I would add the beautiful Mishnah in the beginning of Pirkei Avot which came before the verse just cited: “Be Among the disciples of Aaron, the High Priest: Love peace, pursue peace, love all of humanity [including Gentiles] and bring them close to Torah.”  

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is the chief rabbi of Efrat and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone.

Candlelighting, Readings:

Shabbat Candles: 6:02 p.m.

Torah: Genesis 6:9-11:32                              

Haftarah: Isaiah 54:1-55:5

Havdalah: 6:59 p.m.

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