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Noah's Ark Before the Flood

Rav David Silverberg










The VBM mourns the death of Minister Rechavam Ze'evi hy"d, who was assassinated by terrorists today.  A staunch patriot, he served his country honorably in the IDF for thirty years and in the Knesset for thirteen years.  Yehi zikhro barukh.



     Of the dozens of verbs ascribed to Noach in this parasha that shares his name, one verb does not appear until the very last episode recorded: the act of speech.  Nowhere throughout the main body of our parasha - the account of the flood - does the "righteous, wholehearted man" utter a word.  Even where we finally do find him speaking, his communication is restricted to the confines of his household, as he administers a blessing and curse to his children.  The Torah has no record of his interaction with anyone outside his family.  While the Torah's silence regarding Noach's personal conversations comes as no surprise (Scripture generally omits strictly personal details of its characters' lives), it does raise the issue of his relationship with his contemporaries.  As the Torah makes quite clear, the moral, ethical and presumably cultural gap between him and them could not have been greater.  About the average member of his society we are told, "Every plan devised in his mind was nothing but evil all the time" (6:5); "All flesh had corrupted his ways on earth" (6:12).  Noach, meanwhile, "found favor in God's eyes" (6:8).  Did any substantive dialogue take place between the two sides?  Was any effort made to bridge the moral gap and establish communication between these two diametrically opposite poles?


Walking With God - and Only With God


     Commenting on the Torah's description that Noach "walked with God," Rabbi Ovadia Seforno writes: "He conducted his ways [in a manner similar to God] such that he dealt kindly with others and rebuked his contemporaries."  However, one must read Seforno's claim in conjunction with his closing remarks on Parashat Bereishit: "Although he rebuked them for their acts that corrupted state matters, he did not instruct them to know God, blessed is He, and to follow His ways."  Noach criticized the governmental policies of the depraved establishment of his time, but fell far short of the positive guidance and inspirational leadership his peers so desperately needed.


     Ironically, many Midrashim and commentaries view this very verse upon which the Seforno based his remarks as indicating Noach's isolationism.  Rav David Kimchi (the Radak) presents a moderate formulation along these lines, reading the verse as hailing Noach's resistance to the pressure posed by the rest of humanity:


"Noach walked with God - he attached himself to Him and all his ways were for His Name.  This entailed immense intellectual power, as he overcame his natural tendencies; for he lived in a generation of sinners and thieves, yet he did not learn from their ways.  He rather isolated himself for the service of God."


     Rav Yitzchak Abarbanel extends this clause from indicating Noach's resisting pressure to his dissociation and isolation.  According to his reading, "Noach walked with God" signifies that he did not walk with anyone else.  He maintained complete dissociation from his contemporaries and seemed to have denied himself any social or cultural interaction with those around him. 


     The Midrash underscores Noach's isolationism by drawing a contrasting parallel between this description and God's charge to his descendant, Avraham: "Walk before Me" (Bereishit 17:1).  Bereishit Rabba (30) compares Noach and Avraham to a father's younger and older children, respectively.  As the three travel together, the father asks the older to lead the way while the younger travels with his hand tightly clasping the father's.  Similarly, the patriarch Avraham walked "before God."  He followed the divine path with confident and firm independence, a spiritual maturity that allowed him to interact fully with his theological adversaries in the hope of yielding some positive influence upon them.  Noach, by contrast, walked "with God," maintaining intense and direct contact with the divine so as to shield himself from the corrosive cultural winds of his time.  The Midrash adds a further analogy, likening God to a king who lends his arm to a confidant caught in quicksand.  Noach never let go of God's Hand, afraid of sinking in the quagmire of corruption that characterized his age.  As the Zohar (435) explicitly describes, "When Noach was born he saw the behavior of the people, who sinned before the Almighty.  He hid himself so as not to follow their ways, and he occupied himself in the service of his Creator."


     In a word, Noach spent his pre-deluge years in an "ark."  He found refuge for himself and his family within the confines of a fortress which offered protection from the floodwaters of depravity that swept humanity.  In a penetrating expression of homiletic wit, Rav Dov Ber of Mezritch (among the founders of Hassidism, 18th cent.) interprets God's charge to Noach after the flood, "Leave the ark" (8:16) to mean, "Leave the ark in which you have spent your life!"  Bearing the responsibility of rebuilding and cultivating the desolate earth, Noach and his family could no longer quarantine themselves in an isolated haven of purity.  They must now lead mankind in its quest to begin anew and create the world that was to have been.  Before the flood, however, Noach secluded his family in his protective ark, while the rest of humanity marched steadily towards destruction.


Noah's Ark: A World of its Own


The final verses of Parashat Bereishit record God's decision to obliterate mankind: "I will blot out from the earth the men whom I created - men together with beasts.. for I regret that I made them" (6:7).  The Midrash (Bereishit Rabba 28:9) succinctly asks, "And Noach?!"  If the Almighty decreed annihilation upon all mankind, how did Noach escape?  The Midrash cryptically responds, "Even Noach, who was spared, was not worthy [of having been saved].  Rather, he found favor in God's eyes."  (See a similar passage in Masekhet Sanhedrin 108a.)  How does Noach's having "found favor in God's eyes" help him escape the decree issued against all of humanity?


     Rav Meir Leibush (the Malbim), commenting on God's order to Noach, "Leave the ark," provides us with the answer.  In order to save Noach from the world's destruction, God removed him from the world!  The ark rose above the floodwaters, and, by extension, above the earth.  In this vein we should perhaps understand the Torah's peculiar conclusion to its depiction of the pre-deluge preparations: "God shut him in" (7:16).  The Almighty looked upon Noach's entry into the ark as his departure from humanity and nature; His destruction of the world could thus proceed without affecting Noach, his family or the animals he brought inside.  This understanding becomes ever more apparent according to one view cited by Rashi (6:16) that the ark had no windows; a special stone provided light for the ark's inhabitants.  So detached was the ark from the world that it did not even rely on the sun's rays for light.


     The Midrash (Bereishit Rabba 31:9) spells out this idea beautifully, by drawing what at first seems a far-fetched linguistic parallel between the ark and the purification process of the metzora (leper).  In His instructions to Noach, God orders the construction of different compartments in the ark, to which He refers as "kinim."  The Midrash notes that this term also means birds, specifically those used for purification in several instances of ritual impurity.  The Midrash interprets this association as reflecting a particular function of the ark: "Just as the bird purifies the metzora, so will your ark purify you."  The metzora dwells outside society, denied entry into the city and barred from all social interaction and engagement (see Vayikra 13:46).  He must undergo an involved process of purification before his return.  Similarly, the inhabitants of the ark lived in existential isolation throughout the period of the deluge. 


     Noach's seclusion during the flood parallels the nature of his existence before the destruction, as well.  He could hardly be said to have been part of the world in which he lived.  He took no part in the life of depravity that characterized his time, preferring instead to conceal himself in his ark, in his own world designed to isolate him from the worlds around him.


Explaining Noach's Isolation


     The question, of course, arises: why did Noach feel compelled to isolate himself in a fortress of piety rather than participating in social life and attempting to exert some influence upon his contemporaries?  We will first briefly mention several approaches taken and then suggest an explanation of our own.


1)     Noach was Wrong


     The Midrash Rabba towards the end of Sefer Devarim records a "debate" between Moshe and Noach as to who was more virtuous.  Noach pointed to his having singly escaped the decree of the flood as testament to his piety.  Moshe responded that unlike Noach, he had prayed on behalf of those upon whom God decreed destruction.  After the sin of the golden calf, Moshe courageously intercedes on his nation's behalf, rejecting the Almighty's offer to make from him a new nation after the destruction of the Israelite people.  Noach, by contrast, responded to the decree of the flood with a deafening silence. 


     In a similar vein, the Zohar effectively attributes the disaster of the deluge to Noach.  In our haftara this Shabbat, we read of the prophet's reference to the flood as "the waters of Noach" (Yeshayahu 54:9).  The Zohar explains that Noach's apathy, as expressed by his failure to inspire repentance or beseech God on his doomed contemporaries' behalf, renders him personally responsible for the catastrophe.  The prophet thus considers the floodwaters, "Noach's waters."


     According to the Midrash and Zohar, then, we need not search for legitimate reasons behind Noach's isolation.  He should have involved himself; he should have left his "ark" to lend much-needed guidance and inspiration to his delinquent brethren. 


2)     A Lost Cause


     Others have justified Noach's seclusion on the basis that no hope existed for repentance on the part of his generation.  Rav Soloveitchik is cited as noting a subtle difference between the state of mankind prior to and after the flood.  The Almighty decided to eradicate mankind upon seeing "how great was man's wickedness on earth," and "how every plan devised by his mind was nothing but evil all the time" (6:5).  After the deluge, by contrast, God observes that "the devisings of man's mind are evil from his youth" (8:21).  While pre-deluge man devised ONLY evil, mankind after the flood is characterized by a combination of sorts between good and evil.  Apparently, the flood marked a point of transformation after which mankind is no longer entirely evil, implying that prior to the destruction, man was corrupt at his very core and essence.  Any attempts by Noach to steer his contemporaries back to morality would have thus proven futile.


Similarly, Rabbeinu Bechayei (Spain, 13th century) bases Noach's refusal to pray on his generation's behalf on the absence of the minimum ten righteous citizens necessary to spare the world community.  In two weeks we will read of Avraham's petition for the annulment of the decree of destruction against the iniquitous city of Sedom.  Avraham secured God's promise to save the city should He find ten worthy residents (chapter 18); he does not, however, seek a pardon in the merit of a lower number of pious inhabitants in Sedom.  Rabbeinu Bechayei thus concludes that ten righteous people must be present to allow for a pardon of widespread corruption.  As Noach's generation failed to meet even this minimal standard, Noach justifiably despaired and exerted no effort on behalf of his contemporaries.


3)     Insufficient Strength of Character


     Even if Noach should have, ideally, interacted with others in an effort to impact upon them, as the first approach would argue, he may have been justified in his failure to do so.  The Shem Mi-Shemuel (Rabbi Shemuel Borenstein, Eastern Europe, early 20th century) contends that Noach was truly righteous but acknowledged his limited strength and resolve.  Against a tidal-wave of corruption, only a person of superior moral stamina and stubborn determination could remain steadfast to his principles.  Viewing himself as insufficiently equipped to meet this challenge, Noach constructed his ark and chose isolation over association with his contemporaries.


     One interesting variation of this approach was suggested by Rabbi Yosef Shaul Nathanson.  (Rabbi Nathanson was a renowned halakhic authority in 19th century Poland, best known for his widely-acclaimed, voluminous collection of responsa entitled, "Shoel U-meishiv."  His work on the Chumash, "Divrei Shaul," consists mostly of homiletical essays but often proves enlightening in the quest for "peshat," the straightforward meaning of verses, as well.)  He claims that Noach simply lacked the pedagogic skills and power of persuasion necessary to confront his ideological adversaries.  Whereas his descendant, Avraham, successfully lobbied on behalf of monotheism and morality in defiance of the corrupt, idolatrous leaders of his time, Noach did not have this talent.  He therefore lived in seclusion rather than fighting a losing battle against potential interlocutors.


Understanding Rabbi Yochanan's Assessment of Noach


     We may perhaps consider a different approach, one which takes into account the precise nature of Noach's piety and the conditions under which this piety was manifest.  The Talmud (Sanhedrin 109) records a debate between Rabbi Yochanan and Reish Lakish as to the meaning of the Torah's laudatory description of Noach in our parasha's opening verse.  The Torah describes Noach as "wholesome in his generation."  Rashi paraphrases the debate as follows:


"Some of our sages interpret this as a favorable remark: all the more so, were he to have been in a generation of righteous men he would have been even more righteous.  Others interpret it as a critical remark: for his generation he was righteous; were he to have been in Avraham's generation, he would not have been considered anything."


     The first position, that of Reish Lakish, is clear: as great as Noach was, he would have achieved even more were he had to have lived under more spiritually favorable conditions.  Rabbi Yochanan's position, by contrast, lends itself to different interpretations.  According to the conventional reading of Rabbi Yochanan's view, the verse emphasizes the relativity of Noach's virtue: he was righteous only with respect to his contemporaries; compared with other spiritual heroes, he ranks as mediocre.  It thus turns out that Rabbi Yochanan and Reish Lakish do not dispute Noach's stature.  Both maintain that Noach fell far short of the levels reached by later personalities such as Avraham.  However, this mediocrity was a predictable function of the hostile spiritual environs in which Noach lived.  If he had been granted the privilege of basking in the glow of later luminaries, he would have risen to their heights.  Rabbi Yochanan and Reish Lakish argue only as to the Torah's intent in this verse, whether it seeks to emphasize Noach's greatness or his relative mediocrity.  This reading of the debate is explicitly adopted by the 20th century thinker, Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler, in his classic work, "Mikhtav Me-Eliyahu" (vol. 2, p.157).


     Rabbi Mordekhai Yaffe, who authored a super-commentary on Rashi's commentary to the Torah (entitled, "Levush Ha-ora"), formulates a far different approach to this debate.  He claims that according to Rabbi Yochanan, the presence of inspirational leaders would have had no effect on Noach; even under more favorable conditions, he would not have grown any further.  Whereas Reish Lakish felt that Noach would have achieved more in a different ideological climate, Rabbi Yochanan viewed Noach as entirely independent and unaffected by his surroundings.


     Extending Rabbi Yaffe's analysis one step further may yield a slightly different, third reading of Rabbi Yochanan's position: Noach was righteous specifically because he lived among sinners.  His moral conscience fed off the corruption he witnessed around him and the consequent need to resist, struggle and oppose.  Were no such opposition to have been necessary, he would have lost his source of righteousness.  Noach thrived on the threat posed by society; he therefore achieved religious prominence only "in his generation," as a result of the need to stand in defiant opposition to the immorality of his time.


     To substantiate this thesis, we need only to observe Noach after the flood, when he no longer confronted evil.  Upon emerging from the ark, Noach embarks on an agricultural enterprise, specifically the planting of a vineyard (9:20).  His choice of fruit with which to begin the renewed cultivation of the earth results in his embarrassing intoxication (9:21).  Many Midrashim and commentators criticize Noach for initiating the world's rehabilitation specifically with grapes, rather than other fruits or grains (see Rashi, Seforno).  Indeed, we can only wonder about the "righteous, wholesome man" who now lies undressed in the presence of his son in a drunken stupor. 


In fact, the Seforno draws a suggestive parallel between the opening word in this section - "va-yachel" ("He began") - and the same word introducing the tragic incident of "Ba'al Pe'or," when the Israelites indulged in promiscuity and idolatry with Moabite women (Bemidbar 25:1).  Just as the term there referred to the initiation of sinful conduct, so did Noach act inappropriately as he began this new chapter of human history.  The Midrash similarly notes the Torah's reference to Noach here as an "ish adama," a man of the land.  Material pursuits and physical gratification became his defining characteristics.  Rather than simply engaging in the cultivation of the land, Noach assumed an essentially mundane identity: "asa atzmo chullin" - he made himself mundane (Rashi).


With the elimination of adversity, Noach confronts no moral or religious challenge.  Left alone, he loses his source of moral strength and resolve and he resorts to vanity and intoxication.  (This interpretation is based on a lecture by Rav Aharon Lichtenstein shlit"a.)


     If, indeed, external pressure provided the source of Noach's religious resolve, then we more fully understand his having found refuge in his isolationist "ark" during his lifetime.  This existence of withdrawal and dissociation fueled his religious energy and motivated him to follow God's path.  Noach's entire religious persona developed out of his resistance to his contemporaries, his recoiling into a world of his own rather than sharing their world with them. 


External factors often contribute to one's decision to adopt a conscientious and principled lifestyle.  When these factors become the only considerations, however, one's devotion is superficial, fleeting, and unstable.  The moment circumstances change and previous conditions are absent from the present reality, the commitment is lost.  According to this final suggestion, the adversity posed by a corrupt society fed Noach's principles.  Only in an ark did he excel, when he lived in constant opposition to the forces of evil all around him.  Once the flood eliminated this pressure and the need to resist, once Noach left the confines of the ark, he could not maintain the same standards of righteousness and virtue.


When to Withhold Rebuke


     We conclude with yet a fourth possible approach to this debate between Rabbi Yochanan and Reish Lakish, one which returns us to several issues raised earlier.  Rabbi Yekutiel Yehuda Halberstam, the 20th century scion of the Chassidic dynasty of Sanz, points to Noach's isolationism as the basis for Rabbi Yochanan's unfavorable assessment of him.  In Avraham's time, when the righteous actively involved themselves in and positively impacted upon society, the isolationist Noach "would not have been considered anything."  Reish Lakish, however, endorses Noach's seclusion for one simple reason: as we saw in several sources cited earlier, the generation had passed the point of no return.  Noach withheld rebuke and words of inspiration because he recognized the hopelessness of such efforts.  Rabbi Yochanan, however, argues that even under such circumstances, the righteous voice must be sounded.  Even when attempts to stir the sinners' souls would be met with scorn and ridicule, religious leaders must nevertheless uphold morality's honor and promote - however hopelessly - the truth. 



     The story of Noach - both before and after the flood - is the story of the survival of good in the stormy waters of evil.  In Parashat Noach, this occurred through the construction of an impenetrable barrier between the two, by bolstering the forces of good to enable its firm resistance to evil.  The differing approaches we have seen address the fundamental question as to whether Noach's method is the ideal model for his descendants to follow.  A tension exists between the sincere desire to preserve the remnant of goodness in its purist form at all costs on the one hand, and the ideal of universalistic morality and virtue on the other.  Whether or not Noach acted wisely by constructing his proverbial "ark" depends on the different perspectives we encountered in our study; the practical decision in any given situation depends on one's particular ideology and the specific circumstances involved.


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