Every year we read about Noach again, and I agonize over him. More than any Biblical character I’m perplexed by this enigmatic hero. Part of my perplexity can be blamed on our Sages. When I read the verses unembellished by rabbinic punditry, I get the sense of a positive force in story of humankind. However, the Rabbis seem to have an anti-Noach agenda, which I find a bit daunting. This makes sense on a certain level because, after all, he wasn’t offered the covenant that Avraham signed on to, and we descend from Avraham. B’nei Noach is the designation for those outside our tribe. Nevertheless, every year I rethink this character, so here’s this year’s attempt.
Perhaps the most characteristic approach of our rabbinic forebears is clearly laid out in the commentary Kedushat Levi of Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev (1740-1809), who is probably the most popular Chassidic leader after the Ba’al Shem Tov. Reb Levi Yitzchak;’s first comment on parshat Noach explains that there are two types of zadik, righteous one. The first sort serves God with great devotion and intense enthusiasm in the attempt to bring the zadik himself closer to God. It’s a very passionate relationship between this creation and the Creator. The other kind of devoted worshipper not only tries to deepen their own connection to God but also endeavor to bring others into the fold. The Type II Zadik is described in the Talmud (Kiddushin 40a) as ‘good to heaven and good to people.’ The reason that Noach doesn’t get the appointment as the carrier of God’s covenant to the world is because he had the wrong zadik style. Avraham had it, and then some.
Rabbeinu Bechaye (ben Asher, d. 1340) wrote a very important commentary on the Torah in the last decade of the thirteenth century. In this influential work, Rabbeinu Bechaye not only explained the Torah on a verse by verse basis, but also prefaced each Torah reading with the exposition of a verse from King Solomon’s book of Proverbs. These introductions give the reader a head’s up on the most powerful idea in the upcoming parsha. This week he presents: He who walks innocently is righteous; fortunate are his children after him (Proverbs 20:7). There’s no mistaking Rabbeinu Bechaye’s purpose this week. He chose a verse which parallels exactly the description of Noach. Each verse has the following key words hit’halech (walk), tamim (innocent or perfect), and zadik. We’re being taught that King Solomon’s description of a zadik is Noach.
To help in his exposition of the verse Rabbeinu Bechaye quotes extensively from Rabbeinu Yona of
(d. 1263, the cousin and father in law of Nachmonides), who wrote a majestic commentary on the book of Proverbs. This explanation suggests that there are three levels of righteousness, represented by the three terms zadik, walk and tamim. The first expression is zadik which means that the individual works hard to do the right thing. No small feat. The next stage is tamim, which implies success at this endeavor to be good, no flaws in this diamond. The crowning achievement is called mit’halech and evokes this awesome image of going forward in life in the presence of the Cosmic Director, figurative hand in metaphoric Hand. According to Rabbeinu Yona this entails performing mitzvoth or righteous acts with love and awe for the Creator. There is absolutely no concern for the greater glory of the performer. This person would never mention these deeds with their lips or have them engraved in bronze. This level of virtue is very rare and hints at a stage in human accomplishment in which goodness is its own reward; an extraordinary fulfillment of the Mishneh in Pirkei Avot that the reward of a mitzvah is the mitzvah. Gerona
Obviously, why does Rabbeinu Bechaye introduce our parsha with this verse and exposition? Because Noach was that singular individual who really reached that apex of human spiritual triumph. There is clearly much that we can gain from studying the life and exploits of Noach. This answers an implied question about our parsha. Why do we have these stories in our Torah? They precede the Jewish nation and the giving of the Torah. What is their relevance? Well, we can learn from this extraordinary personality, and hopefully emulate at least a fraction his feats.
However, there is still a fly in the ointment, or a stone in the chulent. If Noach is so marvelous how come we aren’t the Children of Noah, instead the descendants of Avraham? The real question is how come God didn’t make the eternal covenant with Noach? With Noach the verse says: And I will set up My covenant with you (Genesis 6:18). With Avraham God says: And I will establish My covenant between Me and between you and between your seed after you throughout their generations as an everlasting covenant, to be to you for a God and to your seed after you. (17:7). Why is Avraham’s deal for ever and Noach’s only lasts out his lifetime? It’s not because there was a deficiency in Noach, who was perfect, but because of the special quality of Avraham, who went way beyond the job description of zadik, to spread the belief in the one, all powerful God to the entire known world.
When you come to think of it, Noach seems very similar to our patriarch Yitzchak who was also a great zadik, but not a great campaign manager for God. So, this week, when we again fulfill our annual revisiting of this amazing story, let’s not strain to find flaw with our illustrious ancestor, Noach. Instead let’s celebrate his greatness and accomplishments. As Rabbeinu Bechaye has pointed out, there is much we can learn from this great man. He is the prototype for the perfectly innocent zadik who walks with God, and there’s a lot to emulate.