Tracing our steps from the beginning
Until they vanished into the air
Trying to understand how our lives had led us there
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.” He alone and no others.
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 does not make it to the top of the Jewish hit parade.
For instance, when we pray the Amidah – the silent meditation that is the most integral part of the prayer 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. 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 Abraham that He plans to wipe out Sodom and Gemorrah. Abraham 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.
Abraham (being the first Jew and therefore the forefather of all bargainers) 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 Abraham 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.
Yes, 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. Abraham 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 Abraham but not of Noah. There are numerous examples of how Jews have changed history and in fact the Western world has become identified as a Judeo-Christian (read: Jewish) society.
Jews are always well represented in winning Nobel prizes highlighting Jewish contributions to the world. As noted in the website www.jinfo.org/Nobel_Prizes.html
At least 201 Jews have been awarded the Nobel Prize, accounting for 23% of all individual recipients worldwide between 1901 and 2014, and constituting 33% of all US recipients during the same period. In the scientific research fields of Chemistry, Economics, Medicine, and Physics, the corresponding world and US percentages of Jewish recipients are 26% and 39%, respectively. Among women laureates in the four research fields, the Jewish percentages (world and US) are 33% and 50%, respectively. Of organizations awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, 21% were founded principally by Jews or by people of half-Jewish descent.Jews currently make up approximately 0.2% of the world’s population and 2% of the US population.
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 Abraham introduces us to the warmth, beauty, joy and responsibility of being and doing good way beyond ourselves, thereby showing to all that we are part of a much bigger community and family.