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The (Not Quite) Righteous Noah

The (Not Quite) Righteous Noah

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

‘Noah was a righteous person; he was whole-hearted in his generations; Noah walked with God” [Genesis 6:9].


With these laudatory comments, we’re introduced to Noah. However, if indeed Noah was such a great man why was he not chosen to be the founding father of Israel? Why must we wait ten generations for Abraham to come on the scene? And why does Rashi, the classic biblical commentator who always seeks to unearth positive personality traits, quote the passage from the Talmud informing us that there were sages who interpreted this introductory verse to Noah’s detriment, namely “that he was only righteous in his generation; had he lived in the generation of Abraham, he would not have been considered significant at all?” [B.T. Sanhedrin 108a]

A careful analysis of Noah’s story, as well as a comparison with Abraham’s life, will answer our questions and teach us profound lessons about what the Bible really expects from us, the descendants of Abraham.

Our text repeats the assertion that Noah was righteous — a tzadik — as justification for the fact that he and his family were chosen to enter the ark and spared from the flood, because “You alone have I found righteous before Me in this generation” [Gen. 7:1]. Ten generations later, when the Torah is explaining the reason for Abraham’s Divine call to found the nation through which all the nations of the earth will be blessed, a slightly different term is used: “Because I have known him in order that he may command his children and his household after him to guard the way of the Lord; to do charity (tzedaka) and justice.”

What is the difference between Noah, the tzadik, who did acts of tzedek, righteousness, and Abraham, the first Jew, who was a person of tzedaka, charity (as translated by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan), which is apparently preferable to tzedek?

When the Bible first instructs us to lend money to the poor [Exodus 22:24-27], it warns us not to take interest and stresses that if the lender has taken a garment as security for the loan, he must return it to the borrower before sunset. “Because this clothing for his skin may be his only covering. In what else shall he sleep? And if he will cry out to me [because he is cold in the night], I will hear him, because I am compassionate.” When this commandment is repeated in Deuteronomy, the Torah adds, “Return it to him at sunset, so that he will be able to sleep in his garment and bless you; for you, this will be considered as an act of charity (tzedaka) before the Lord your God” [Deut. 24:10-14].

Our Talmudic sages rule that until the borrower repays his debt, the lender actually owns the pledge, so strict justice would imply that he does not need to return it for the night. But the Bible expects more: it expects the lender to reach out to the borrower with compassion, to go beyond the requirements of righteousness and to act charitably (giving what is rightfully yours to someone else who needs it).

Noah was a tzadik, a person of righteousness; he was not a doer of tzedaka, a person of compassion. Noah deserved to be saved, whereas the other inhabitants of the world did not, which is why Noah built an ark for himself and his family in accordance with God’s instructions, but never pleaded with God on behalf of the rest of humanity. When, however, God informed Abraham that because of their heinous crimes Sodom and Gomorrah were about to be destroyed, Abraham argued with God, pleaded with the Almighty even on behalf of the evil people.

God wants a covenantal people that will reach out in compassion to the entire world; a people that will be “a sacred nation and a kingdom of priest-teachers,” that will even strive and argue with Him, choosing the ways of loving compassion over the path of strict righteousness. Noah was righteous for himself, holding everyone to his own strict standards. In this, he was a precursor of Jonah, who fled from the God of repentance and forgiveness, the God of Nineveh and the God of the world.

Abraham was the father of Moses, who was willing to be removed from the Book of Books and the Book of Life in order to “force” God to forgive a sinning Israel. Abraham was the father of Isaiah, who dreamt of a house of God that would be a house of prayer for all nations in a world where every human would live in peace and security. It is no wonder, then, that, when compared to Abraham, Noah is found wanting.

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

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