Looking hard into your eyes
There was nobody I’d ever known Such an empty surprise – to feel so alone
Noah is a good guy. A really good guy. You have to be pretty good if God decides that everyone else on the planet is going to perish but you are spared. Such was the case with our hero in this week’s Torah portion. As the Torah testifies, “Noah was a righteous man in his generation.” In his generation is the operative phrase – he alone and no other.
And yet, despite being at the top of his class, there still seems to be something lacking in Noah. As great as he may have been to be spared death-by-flood, he still somehow doesn’t make it to the top of the Jewish hit parade.
For instance, when we pray the Amida – the prayer that is the most integral part of the service – we refer to the “God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob” but not to the God of Noah. Furthermore, there is a Mishna that unequivocally states that the Jewish people have three forefathers and four foremothers; no more and no less. Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov. Sara, Rivkah, Rachel and Leah. No Noah and no Mrs. Noah.
So why is he left out?
You never knew what I loved in you
I don’t know what you loved in me
Maybe the picture of somebody you were hoping I might be
While Noah may indeed be the biological forefather of everyone, he is not the spiritual forefather of the Jewish people. Yes we all descend from Noah, but he doesn’t become a partner with God in a Covenant to better the world as Avraham and company did. This is because he lacked one crucial quality which is best expressed when God informs Noah of His plans to destroy humankind. “The end of all flesh has come before me … build for yourself an Ark.” Noah’s response? “OK”, and off he goes
to Home Depot.
Contrast this to when God tells Avraham that He plans to wipe out Sodom and Gemorrah. Avraham is not ok with that. In fact, he has the chutzpah to argue with God about it. “Perhaps there are fifty righteous people there – would You wipe out the good people with the evil?” God relents and is willing to spare the place for fifty.
Avraham pushes further. “Well, what if there are just 45, 40, 30…?” He gets God to settle for ten. Ultimately it did not work and there were not even ten righteous people – but that is beside the point. The main thing is that Avraham cared enough to speak up. He felt a responsibility for his fellow man and could not allow God to destroy them without first doing whatever was in his power to avert the disaster.
Noah did no such thing when he found himself in similar circumstances. He did not argue, he did not plead, he did not fight for his fellow man. He acquiesced.
Yeah, Noah was indeed righteous but primarily for himself, ensuring that he alone and his immediate family were good people but without much concern beyond his neat white-picket fence. Avraham was not only righteous himself, but was also dedicated to having others live a life of moral values and truth. As such, he took responsibility for humankind and this has been the hallmark of the Jewish
people ever since. This lacking in Noah is why he was not able to spawn a nation whose mission is a shared responsibility for everyone in the world – to be an Ohr LaGoyim, A Light Unto Nations.
Indeed it is this seminal character trait that has propelled the Jewish people to be so pivotal and disproportionately involved in world-changing contributions throughout the ages – a legacy of Avraham but not of Noah. There are numerous examples of how Jews have changed history and in fact the Western world has largely become identified as a Judeo-Christian society. And let’s face it, it’s not because of our huge numbers like those of the Christians or Muslims which are in the billions. Furthermore, it is well documented that Jews are disproportionally represented in winning Nobel prizes, highlighting Jewish contributions to the world. (Last count was 22% of all individual recipients worldwide between 1901 and 2020, and constituting 36% of all US recipients.)
We have much to thank for Noah. Without him none of us would be around. But if history would have stopped with Noah’s contribution then the world would be a very lonely place, as his life must have been on that Ark all by himself with just family and his many pets.
Only Avraham takes his contribution to the next level by introducing the warmth, beauty, joy and exhilaration of taking responsibility for everyone around us. Of being and doing good way beyond just ourselves and thereby showing that we are part of a much bigger community and family.