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Noach and Abraham

  • Harav Yehuda Amital

Sicha for Shabbat from the Roshei Yeshiva
Yeshivat Har Etzion



Noach and Abraham

Summarized by Jeremy Spierer

"These are the generations of Noach. Noach was a righteous man, perfect in his generation (be-dorotav); Noach walked with God ... God said to Noach, 'Come into the ark, you and your family, for I have seen that you are righteous before Me in this generation.'" (Bereishit 6:9, 7:1)

Rashi (6:9), citing the midrash, addresses the Torah's emphasis on Noach's generation:

"Some Rabbis interpret [the word 'be-dorotav'] to Noach's credit: had Noach lived in a generation of tzadikim (righteous people), he would certainly have been more righteous. Other Rabbis interpret it to Noach's detriment: by the standards of his generation, Noach was righteous. However, had he lived in Abraham's generation, he would not have been considered [anything]."

In explaining the second part of the verse - "Noach walked with God" - Rashi elaborates on this comparison between Noach and Abraham:

"...Noach required God's assistance for support, but Abraham strengthened himself, maintaining his righteousness by himself."

The comparison between Noach and Abraham is a natural one. Both Noach and Abraham merited a special relationship with God after a "break" of ten generations. Yet, if we analyze their lives - especially as recorded by the midrash and the Zohar - we uncover stark differences. We can isolate two main differences. 1) Noach was a product of his generation. He grew up in the same environment as his neighbors. Abraham, on the other hand, simply arrived in Cana'an, a stranger. 2) At the same time, Noach and Abraham developed the opposite relationship with their neighbors. While Noach isolated himself from the masses, Abraham sought them out, proclaiming the message of God.

This last difference is highlighted by comparing parallel episodes in their lives:

"God said to Noach, 'The end of all flesh has come before Me. The world is filled with crime. I will therefore destroy them with the earth. Make yourself an ark of gopher wood...' Noach did all that God had commanded him..." (6:13, 14, 22)

"God said, 'The cry of Sodom and Amora is great, and their sin is very grave. I will descend and see: have they done everything implied by the outcry that is coming before Me? If not, I will know...' Abraham came forth and said, 'Will you actually wipe out the innocent together with the guilty? Suppose there are fifty innocent people in the city...'" (18:20,23,24)

God approached both Noach and Abraham with a message of destruction for the wicked of their generations. While Abraham pleaded and prayed, Noach remained silent, complying with God's wishes.

The Zohar explains Noach's behavior: Noach was afraid that if he prayed for his generation, he himself would not be spared. How can we understand this Zohar? Hadn't Noach received God's personal assurance of safety? Instead, we have to understand the nature of prayer. To pray for someone, you have to understand him; you have to identify with his struggles. Noach was afraid his prayer would draw him closer to his generation. Perhaps he would then be influenced by his generation. In contrast, Abraham understood the people of Sodom, realizing what they stood for. Yet, he prayed for them nevertheless.

Interestingly, the Zohar relates that Noach did eventually question God's harsh decree. Upon exiting the ark, Noach surveyed the destruction around him, crying, "God, this is your mercy?" God then rebuked Noach, "For 120 years [the time it took to build the ark] I waited for your prayers..." This Zohar accents the tragedy of Noach's character. Noach had the potential to save his generation, for he spoke their language. He was one of them. However, instead of reaching out, he simply gave up on them.

What did Noach see in his generation to evoke such a response? The Talmud (Sanhedrin 108a) describes the source of their wickedness: "They became conceited as a result of the goodness God bestowed upon them." Their high quality of life, the Talmud records, caused them to reject God, "Therefore they say to God, 'Depart from us, for we desire not the knowledge of Your ways. What is the Almighty that we should serve Him and what profit should we have if we pray to Him?' (Job 21:14,15)."

The midrash, as well, comments on the people's lifestyle. Their technology was advanced to such an extent, the midrash relates, that they rarely had to work. Rav Tzadok Ha-kohen of Lublin writes that the members of Noach's generation enjoyed too much free time. What could Noach accomplish in such a culture with an abundance of leisure but no spiritual aspirations? Perhaps Noach reasoned, "I cannot reach people in such a world. God Himself has to change the nature of the world."

"Too much free time." If Rav Tzadok were alive today, he would make a similar statement about our own culture. We pray for free time, so we can learn Torah. But what about those still unfamiliar with the Torah, or those who reject the Torah? How do they use their free time? They cultivate another hobby and another hobby...

Noach isolated himself from his generation, and found himself isolated in the ark. Abraham, on the other hand, taught us a different approach. Yes, God will help man improve his world, but only at man's initiative.

(Originally delivered on Leil Shabbat, Parashat Noach 5757.)


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