As the Torah begins the Flood story, the Torah introduces Noach as the righteous man of his time, a famously ambiguous description.
It might be a straightforward compliment that Noach was one of the greats, or it might be a backhanded compliment with the faint inference that his generation was so awful that being the best of them isn’t especially praiseworthy.
Noach is quite clearly a significant figure, the protagonist of an important story. Why would the Torah imply even a hint of a negative interpretation?
In isolation, the negative characterization might seem a little harsh.
But in the context of the bigger picture, the Torah wants us to learn; it matters that we notice who Noach was and what he did and did not do. The Rambam notes that the Torah leads us through the early trajectory of human history; and how people just couldn’t get it right until eventually, someone did – Avraham.
The Midrash teaches that after God told Noach to start prepping for the Flood, Noach would tell everyone what he was doing and preach to them to abandon their corruption and lawlessness to embrace ethics and morality. His pleas fell on deaf ears, and the world was lost.
In a sense, this reinforces the question. The most humans can do is try in the hope that God helps. We control our efforts only and not the outcome.
Why do we hold Noach’s failure against him?
R’ Yitzchak Berkowitz teaches that Noach’s failing wasn’t in his efforts; it was his methods.
Noach didn’t attempt to understand his society; he separated himself from it. He insulated his family to the extent he couldn’t understand the people around him, and he couldn’t get through. The word “Noach” literally means “easy” – the easy way out.
We need to ask if we could consider ourselves righteous if we detach entirely from humanity and society. How strong is our belief system truly if we don’t think it could withstand the slightest scrutiny?
The issues of Noach’s day weren’t ideological or philosophical because paganism isn’t a philosophy – it’s ad hoc. The problems of that day were lust, desire, greed, and selfishness.
The tragedy of Noach was that for all his efforts and personal righteousness, he didn’t put in the effort to understand the people around him.
Arguing with people rarely succeeds – and anyone who’s had a significant dispute will tell you that it rarely matters that you’re right.
In stark contrast, Avraham is lauded as someone who was very in tune with how to win the hearts and minds of his society. He fed people and washed them, caring for all people with genuine love and kindness. Pagans were not a threat to him because his beliefs and practices were strong enough to survive contact with them. The Raavad notes how we herald Shem, Ever, and others as righteous, yet they don’t feature in our pantheon of greats because they never went out into the world.
R’ Samson Raphael Hirsch taught that righteous people are not scholars in ivory towers; they actively drive positive change in their communities by living out the Torah’s teachings – בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה בָּעִיר.
Noach, the best man his generation could muster, failed:
וַיִשָּׁאֶר אַךְ־נֹחַ – Only Noach was left… (7:23)
Instead of saying that Noach survived – וַיִשָּׁאֶר נֹחַ, the Torah emphasizes that “only” Noach survived, underscoring the utter devastation and loss in the story. R’ Meir Schapiro highlights that this is the moment Noach understood the cost of his failure, abandoning his peers to their fates without doing all he humanly could.
R’ Josh Joseph notes that we highlight Noach’s failure despite his efforts because the image of Noach alone is terrifying, which leads him to see his remaining days in the depths of alcoholism and depression. R’ Shlomo Farhi notes that Noach’s defining feature was that there was nothing wrong with him – תמים – which is to say that Noach was perfectly adequate, and yet that wasn’t enough.
R’ Jonathan Sacks contrasts this broken figure of Noach, who couldn’t save anyone, with the bold and staunch figure of Avraham, who tried to save everyone. When God informed Avraham that He intended to destroy Sodom, Avraham passionately advocated for Sodom’s survival – a civilization that stood for everything Avraham stood against!
Whereas Noach walked with God – אֶת־הָאֱלֹהִים הִתְהַלֶּךְ־נֹחַ – we see Avrohom as someone who went before God; over, above and beyond – הִתְהַלֵּךְ לְפָנַי.
We need to dig very deep to have a shot at saving others, lifting as we climb, so it resonates with us that Noach could have done more. Perhaps we recognize that’s what it takes in order to live with ourselves.