Parshat Noach תשע”ט
When introducing us to Noach, Hashem is careful to tell us that Noach is a צדיק – a completely righteous person. This portion begins (Genesis 6:9)
ספר בראשית פרק ו
ט) אֵלֶּה תּוֹלְדֹת נֹחַ נֹחַ אִישׁ צַדִּיק תָּמִים הָיָה בְּדֹרֹתָיו
9) These are the generations of Noach; Noach was a righteous person, a complete צדיק in his generation.
The seemingly unnecessary words “in his generation” spark a controversy among the Sages.
Some say that these are words of great praise for Noach, for he lived in a generation with very evil people who were immoral, worshipped idols, and stole from one another. Indeed, theft is what ultimately did them in. Hashem would have tolerated the transgressions against Him, but He could not tolerate the discord between them. In spite of all of this, Noach remained righteous. Therefore, if Noach was able to be a צדיק even in a generation of degenerates, could you imagine how much greater he would have been had he been born into the generation of Avraham Avinu, our forefather?
Others take the opposite approach. They explain that these words are derogatory to Noach. It was only compared to the degenerates of his generation that he was considered a צדיק. But if he was in the generation of Avraham Avinu, he would not have rated as a צדיק at all.
Harav Eliyahu Dessler in his work Michtav MiEliyahu explains that these two opinions are both true and moreover complement each other. While, compared to Avraham Avinu, Noach would not have been considered a צדיק, this is precisely because he lived in a generation with such evil people. It took all his effort just to defy the tide of evil that prevailed in his society. Had he not needed to expend that effort just to remain righteous, he would have used it to go forward and thus would have become a much greater צדיק.
Living before the Torah and its 613 Mitzvot, Noach had only seven commandments to keep, viz, the seven Noachide laws that all gentiles must observe and which are necessary to live an upright moral life and which form the framework for society to function properly.
The first of these seven commandments is to believe in Hashem, the Creator of the world, to the exclusion of any idols and other gods. The second is not to curse Hashem. Three, four, and five are not to murder, steal, or commit adultery, and the sixth is to have a court system to enforce all of the above. The seventh, which came after the flood, when Noach was first permitted to eat the flesh of animals, is not to pull the limb off an animal and eat it while the animal is still alive.
The trend in Noach’s time was to transgress numbers 1, 4, and 5, which made it difficult to live a righteous life. It is very difficult to be the odd man out and not conform to the masses. We face the same challenge in our society today with its very strong trend against organized religion. Abstaining from the mores of society requires one to buck the trend to live a religious life. It is reasonable to say that if it did not take so much effort just to do the things that we are doing, we would be so much greater. Even though if we would measure ourselves against the righteous of the last generation we would not amount to much, had we grown up in their generation, we would arguably have been as great as they were.
We seldom consider the difficulty of keeping the Torah and its commandments in the society in which we live. Even making a commitment to study Torah on a weekly basis and to add more Judaism to our lives is a strong departure from the general mindset of most Jews today. Judaism and the observance of the mitzvot tend to appear so old fashioned and archaic. Many people go as far as to compare observant Jews to the Amish who refuse to leave their ancient ways and enter the 21st century. The reality could not be farther from this misconception. The Torah and its commandments are as fresh and relevant to life today as they were the day that they were given at Sinai, 3,331 years ago, and that is what keeps us going! But, it still requires a tremendous amount of conviction and perseverance to fight the tide of the times and to maintain a religious lifestyle or to add a religious component in a society that thinks we are completely out of touch. If we were living in the times of our ancestors who received the Torah, we would be from the most righteous members of the nation.
Getting back to Noach, the star of our story, the man who saved the human race from destruction, we find a startling critique.
The prophet Isaiah (54:9) called the flood waters that destroyed the entire world except for what was in the ark with Noach, “Noach’s waters.”
ספר ישעיה פרק נד
ט) כִּי מֵי נֹחַ זֹאת לי
The implication is that Noach caused the flood. How could Noach be blamed for the flood, when he was the only one worthy of being saved?
Our Sages teach us that the reason that Noach is held accountable for the flood is that he could have prevented it. How? He should have prayed to Hashem to have mercy on the people and spare them from destruction.
The Zohar on this week’s portion teaches us
תנו רבנן, מה השיב הקדוש ברוך הוא לנח, כשיצא מן התיבה וראה כל העולם חרב, והתחיל לבכות עליו, ואמר, רבונו של עולם, נקראת רחום, היה לך לרחם על בריותיך
השיבו הקדוש ברוך הוא, רעיא שטיא, כען אמרת דא, ולא בזמנא דאמרית לך בלישנא רכיכא, דכתיב (שם ו) עשׂה לך תבת עצי גפר כו’, ואני הנני מביא את המבול כו’, לשחת כל בשׂר כו’, ויאמר ה’ לנח כו’, כי אתך ראיתי צדיק לפני בדור הזה, כולי האי אתעכבית עמך, ואמרית לך, בדיל דתבעי רחמין על עלמא. ומכדין דשמעת דתשתיזיב את בתיבותא, לא עאל בלבך בישותא דעלמא, ועבדת תיבותא ואשתזבתא. וכען דאתאביד עלמא, פתחית פומך למללא קדמי בעיין ותחנונין
The Rabbis taught: When Noach came out of the ark and saw the world destroyed he began to cry and said to Hashem, “Master of the World! You are called the Merciful One. Why didn’t you have mercy on your creatures?” Hashem responded. “Silly shepherd! Now you say this? But not when I told you to make an ark of gopher wood because I am bringing a flood to destroy all humanity. Why did I wait so long (120 years)? So that you should ask for mercy on the world’s inhabitants. But once you heard that you would be saved, you didn’t think about the plight of the others; you just made the ark and saved yourself! But now that the world is lost, you open your mouth to ask for mercy?”
The Prophet Yechezkel tells us in the name of Hashem (18:32)
ספר יחזקאל פרק יח
לב) כִּי לֹא אֶחְפֹּץ בְּמוֹת הַמֵּת נְאֻם אֲדֹנָי יֱדֹוִד וְהָשִׁיבוּ וִחְיו
32) For I do not desire the death of the one who should die – said Hashem Elokim. Turn yourselves back (do teshuva) and live!
Hashem never wants to punish even evil people. Hashem created mankind to receive the greatest pleasure in the world, and He wants very much that each person in the world receive that pleasure. He would much rather that we do teshuva and receive that reward. This is why Hashem gave Noach a subtle hint that he should pray for his generation and try to save them. But Noach didn’t get the hint. He thought that Hashem would probably want them dead.
We find this idea with Avraham Avinu and Moshe Rabbeinu.
Before Hashem decided to destroy Sedom, He decided that He needed to tell Avraham what He intended to do (Genesis 18:17):
ספר בראשית פרק יח
יז) וַידֹוָד אָמָר הַמֲכַסֶּה אֲנִי מֵאַבְרָהָם אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי עֹשֶׂה
17) And Hashem said: “Could I hide from Avraham what I plan to do?”
The people of Sedom were the antithesis of Avraham and everything that he stood for. Avraham was the pillar of kindness in the world and goes down in Jewish history as the person who perfected the attribute of kindness. He had a 10-star hotel that was free to all, and he personally made sure that you received the best service possible.
The people of Sedom, on the other hand, forbade acts of kindness and were cruel and sadistic. In Sedom, one was not permitted to feed the hungry or host guests in their homes. The local hotel would provide a long bed for a short person and stretch him until he fit, and would provide a short bed for a long person and cut his feet off. The screams of agony and suffering from all the people afflicted by the inhabitants of Sedom reached Hashem’s ears, and the cry was so great that Hashem decided He needed to kill the entire city. As an example of their cruelty and the straw that broke the camel’s back, the Midrash relates the story of a poor man who came to town and remained a little too long. The townsfolk understood that someone must be secretly feeding him so they sent a spy to catch the culprit, who turned out to be a young girl. To make an example of her, they smeared her body with honey and put her on the top of a wall near bee hives, where the bees stung her to death.
When Hashem revealed to Avraham Avinu that the people of Sedom had crossed the line and were marked for destruction, instead of saying, “It’s about time! These evil people have been my arch-enemies forever,” Avraham argued and negotiated with Hashem to try to save them! What was he thinking?
When Hashem told Avraham Avinu what he intended to do, Avraham scratched his head and asked himself, “Now, why in the world would Hashem be telling me this? Obviously, there is something He wants me to do about it.” Avraham correctly concluded that Hashem wanted him to pray for them. Avraham’s prayers were unsuccessful in saving the people of Sedom because they were too far gone, but the lesson to us is clear. Hashem wants prayer even for such despicable people.
We find the same with Moshe after the Jewish people had committed the sin with the golden calf. Hashem said to Moshe (Exodus 32:10)
ספר שמות פרק לב
י) וְעַתָּה הַנִּיחָה לִּי וְיִחַר אַפִּי בָהֶם וַאֲכַלֵּם וְאֶעֱשֶׂה אוֹתְךָ לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל
10) And now, let go of Me and I will vent my anger against them and destroy them and make you into a great nation.
Moshe thought to himself, “Let go of me? Am I holding onto You?” Hashem has created an opening for me to pray for them! I will seize it! Moshe realized that even though they had sinned, Hashem still wanted him to pray for them. This is how Moshe saved the Jewish people from destruction many times through his prayers for them.
Unfortunately, Noach did not get the hint. On the contrary, he thought that Hashem would prefer them dead, and therefore he did not pray for them. This is why he is faulted for the flood.
The big question is, why? The מביט Mabit (Rabbi Moses ben Joseph Trani 1500-1580) in his work בית אלקים Bet Elokim asks an even more difficult question. Where is the justice in the people perishing because the צדיק neglected to pray for them? Why should they be punished for the sin of the צדיק?
He answers that these evil people are deserving of death because of their sins. But, the צדיק could possibly have saved them through praying that they come to their senses and do teshuva and return to Hashem. That is the essence of the prayers of the righteous, that all mankind recognize Hashem and fulfill His will. This will bring each person to the fulfillment of his purpose in the world, and ultimately the entire world to its perfected state as Hashem’s kingdom. When the צדיק neglects to pray for the evil to mend their ways, they remain in their state of evil, and ultimately are punished for it.
This answer brings forth another difficult question. How does prayer for someone to do teshuva work? Doesn’t the choice to do good have to come from him? How is it that I am able to influence his freedom of choice for the good?
The greatest possible mitzvah that a person can do is to bring a person closer to Hashem. To create a deep and close relationship with Hashem is Hashem’s goal for each of His creations; and whomever aids in that process is fulfilling Hashem’s most fervent wish. In turning to Hashem in prayer for a lost or evil soul to return to Hashem, the person praying is placing all his hope and trust in Hashem and comes closer to Hashem by creating this strong bond of trust between him and Hashem. The evil person who was the catalyst for this new closeness to Hashem has thus gained the great merit of having brought someone closer to Hashem. The magnitude of this mitzvah alone could suffice to trigger a small change in the thinking or attitude of even an evil person, and help him begin the process of returning to Hashem. While there may be some people who are so far gone that even the most fervent prayers of the most righteous person won’t help them as in the case with the people of Sedom, whom Avraham Avinu prayed for, one can never know, and, therefore, it was a critique against Noach for not trying.
In reality, the Sages have incorporated this very request in our daily prayers. It is in the second paragraph of the last prayer עלינו לשבח (Aleynu) the paragraph that begins על כן נקוה and there we say these words.
. וְכָל בְּנֵי בָשָֹר יִקְרְאוּ בִשְׁמֶךָ לְהַפְנוֹת אֵלֶיךָ כָּל רִשְׁעֵי אָרֶץ
And all flesh will call Your name, and all the evil people of the earth will turn to You.
The entire paragraph is a plea for the restoration of the Kingdom of Hashem in the world, and this is the most important component. If we would say this paragraph of our prayers with thought and sincerity, we would be making a major contribution to the coming of the Mashiach and the final redemption. Let’s get cracking!!