Genesis 6:9 – 11:32
As introductions go, Noah’s was rather impressive. At the opening of this weeks parasha he is described as a “righteous man in his generation …[who] walked with God.” [Gen. 6:9] The rabbis have a great deal of praise for Noah, or rather, some do and some do not. The great medieval commentator Rashi describes the debate. He notes that some rabbis teach that Noah was righteous even in his generation; that if he had lived in a more righteous generation then he would have been even more righteous because of his innate goodness. However, Rashi also directs our attention the Talmud, which teaches that Noah was only righteous in comparison with the evil people of his own generation. Had he lived in the time of Abraham, he would have been nobody special (Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 108a).
This may seem a little harsh, but the Talmudic rabbis are not creating this idea from thin air. They ask us to compare Noah with Abraham. Of Abraham, the Torah says that he was righteous, but does not add the phrase “in his generation.” The Talmudic rabbis consider that a purposeful omission: Abraham’s righteousness would stand out in any generation, whereas Noah’s only stood out in relation to his own generation. The rabbis also look to another detail in the text. According to the text, Abraham did not walk with God like Noah, but instead, walked before God [Gen. 17:1 and 24:40]. What is the difference? Noah needed extra support from God for his righteousness, like a toddler needing to hold his parent’s hand for support. Abraham had enough strength to walk on his own in righteousness, like an older child walking in front of his parent.
While this may seem like an academic argument, the difference can clearly be seen in their actions. When God approaches Noah, describing the imminent destruction of the world, Noah does exactly what God commands: he builds an ark. The rabbis consider that a righteous act indeed, not to mention incredibly difficult to execute. But, when God told Abraham about the imminent destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham tries to talk God out of it. What courage! He directly challenged God, asking if the innocent should die with the guilty, and eventually talks God down to the point where if ten innocents could be found, then the entire city would be spared. Amazingly, God does not punish Abraham for insolence but instead agrees with Abraham’s arguments.
Here we arrive at one of the most fundamental truths of our tradition: blind faith is not true righteousness. True righteousness means living with such a commitment to the values and teachings of Torah that we are willing to challenge any authority, even God, when they seem contrary to what we know to be right.
If Noah had challenged God the way Abraham did, would there still have been a flood? We will never know. However, in today’s world, which in some ways seems just as filled with violence and hate as in Noah’s day, we have a choice. Who will we choose to emulate, Noah or Abraham?
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras