A GREAT SAVE
Rabbi David Walk
Every year when we encounter the personality of Noach, I'm again beset with ambivalence. There is probably no character in world literature so unfairly maligned. There is a virtual rabbinic industry concerned with deprecating this Biblical hero. The motivation for disparaging the reputation of Noach is very simple. He's not a member of my team. For example, ask baseball fans who is the best (untainted) position player whose playing days are coming to an end. Most people will say Derek Jeter, but a quick perusal of career stats will show that the retiring Todd Helton has a higher batting average, more home runs, more RBI's, and much higher on base and slugging percentages (Helton's OPS is an astonishing 125 points higher). But Todd Helton's superior numbers are overshadowed by other circumstances, namely Jeter played in New York and won five World Series. All you Yankees fans who want to dispute these facts are similar to the Jews throughout the ages who want to promote Avraham and relegate Noach to the minor leagues. This is a natural tendency. We root, root, root for the home team, and Noach isn't Jewish. So, without in any way diminishing our respect and affection for Avraham, this year let's celebrate the greatness of Noach.
Noach is introduced in last week's parsha. He is first recorded in the genealogy of Adam, and there we're told: And Lamech lived a hundred and eighty two years, and he begot a son. And he named him Noach, saying, "This one will give us rest from our work and from the toil of our hands from the ground, which the Lord has cursed (Genesis 5:28-29)." There was something objectively special about Noach without any mention or comparison to the bad behavior of his generation. He has lessened the impact of God's curse upon Adam because he was an agricultural genius and innovator. There is an opinion that he invented the plow, but in any case there was a diminution of the effects of the curse God placed upon Adam after the sin of the fruit in the Garden of Eden. In a very tangible way Noach gave comfort to the people of his time.
Just a few verses later, we are informed that the denizens of this world have become corrupt and God 'saw that the evil of man was great in the earth, and every imagination of his heart was only evil all the time (6:5).' God has had a change of heart about the decision to create these humans. In this essay I don't want to discuss these descriptions of God's emotions and state of mind. For the purpose of this article we'll just accept the opinion that the Torah is describing God in human terms to help us understand the story. But along comes (not Mary, but) Noach and God seems to be comforted.
Now Noach has had an amazingly positive affect upon both God and human. The term to describe the impact upon mankind is vayinachem, usually translated as 'and he comforted.' However, the description of Noach's affect on God is motzo chein that he found favor. The comfort or consolation idea is that a concrete good has transpired for humanity at the hands of Noach. But the finding favor means that God didn't receive anything from Noach. It's that Noach was extended a boon from our Lord. In any case both sides were, in some way, helped by Noach. When Noach calmed humanity it says that he saved them from itzavon, perhaps pain, suffering or sadness. Remarkably, God also had vayitzav et libo, some suffering of the heart or seat of emotion. So, Noach had a therapeutic affect upon all who encountered him. His very name, Noach, implies this comfort. According to Rabbeinu Bechaye this name is a cross between Nachum (comfort) and Chen (favor).
At this point I must interject that this whole scenario raises a problem. Back in the chapter of Creation the Midrash asserts that the angels approached God with a petition to not create mankind. They claimed that Humanity would sin and the whole enterprise was doomed. Does our scene seem to vindicate the position of the angels against God? Hardly. I believe that the scene we are witnessing unfolded a number of times, because the Midrash also asserts that God created and destroyed a number of worlds before this present iteration of our universe. And, apparently, this realm would have gone the exact same route as those others if God hadn't found something in Noach which at the eleventh hour stayed the Deity's hand before again depressing the reset button.
So, Noach is a hero of mythic proportion. He presents mankind with a great tool to roll back the ill effects of our primordial ancestors' indiscretion. Simultaneously, his outstanding character changes the course of God's intent. To a certain extent these exploits sound more like the account of a Greek hero rather than a Biblical saint. What's missing from this presentation? Interaction with other humans. He has a wife, but we don't even know her name. His three sons don't seem to communicate with him. And we have no record of a single word spoken by him to another human being. Perhaps the picture our Rabbis portray misses the mark. Maybe Noach couldn't be the first Jew because he was too good, not because he wasn't good enough. However, our heroes don't stand on a pedestal aloof and above the rest of mankind; our heroes live, interact and mingle with people who are good and bad, pagan and believer.
Noach isn't anointed the father of God's people. Noach doesn't become God's representative on planet earth. But Noach, at a crucial moment, reaches out a gloved hand and makes an amazing save to win the game and preserve our world. That's pretty good, and I think that in spite of some later backsliding, he deserves our unconditional respect, and maybe even a pat on the back.
You can subscribe to Rabbi Walk's weekly articles at WalkThroughTheParshafirstname.lastname@example.org