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15.10.2015 11:50    Comments: 0    Categories: Weekly Parashah      Tags: torah shabbat parasha  noah  

What Lies Behind the Disparaging View of Noah?

Parashat Noah beings with a most unusual and flattering description:  "Noah was a righteous man; he was blameless in his age; Noah walked with G d" (Gen. 6:9).  Such explicitly clear descriptions of other people in Scripture are few and far between.
The Sages turn out to have had a different view of the matter.  Rashi's commentary on this verse cites a difference of opinion among the amoraim  regarding the figure of Noah:
Some of our Rabbis explained it to his credit:  [he was righteous even in his generation] had he lived in a generation of righteous people he would have been even more righteous.  Others, however, explain it to his discredit:  in comparison with his own generation he was accounted righteous, but had he lived in the generation of Abraham he would have been accounted as of no importance.
These remarks require examination:
The scriptural verse presents an explicitly flattering description of Noah.  In addition, the Mishnah (Avot 1.6), establishes a basic principle:  "Judge every person to his credit."  If so, why do we find an effort made to turn this to Noah's discredit, when the verse can easily be interpreted in praise of him?
Moreover, from this week's reading, Parashat Noah, the Sages learned an important rule.  When the Holy One, blessed be He, commanded Noah to enter the ark, He said to him:
Go into the ark, with all your household, for you alone have I found righteous before Me in this generation.  Of every clean animal you shall take seven pairs, males and their mates, and of every animal that is not clean, two, a male and its mate" (Gen. 7:1-2).
From this verse the gemara (Bava Batra 123a) deduced that even "of an unclean animal Scripture did not speak disparagingly."  Scripture used a longer, convoluted expression ("every animal that is not clean") in order to avoid the disparaging adjective, "unclean."
Yet precisely in this week's reading, in a verse that could easily be interpreted in praise of Noah, some of the Rabbis interpreted it as disparaging Noah.  Why?!  What motivated this negative interpretation?
Clearly Conveying the Halakhah
he Lubavitcher Rebbe, z"l, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, suggested a fascinating and wonderful explanation.   At the heart of the matter is the question:  what in truth are the limitations of the rule that the Torah does not speak disparagingly even of an unclean animal, and hence in order to avoid saying "unclean" added a phrase requiring an additional eight letters in Hebrew?  After all, we can find many instances in which the word "unclean" appears in Scripture in conjunction with animals.
The answer is that the principle of carefully avoiding use of "dirty" language depends on the context.  When dealing with narrative material in the Torah, in incidental descriptions where the detail has no practical significance, strict adherence to the principle of not speaking disparagingly of anyone or anything, even of an unclean animal, is the rule.  But when the matter concerns something that has practical implications, then the situation is different.
In matters of halakhah and law, the Torah uses the most direct and clear-cut language, even if that requires using "dirty" language.  The reasoning is that halakhah must be stated clearly, in a manner that leaves no ambiguity.  In order to remove any risk of misunderstanding that might lead to mistaken observance of the halakhah, in Parashat Shemini the Torah defines which animals may be eaten and which may not.  There it states, plain and clear:  these are pure, and these are impure.  Here, in Parashat Noah, the description of the animals is incidental, and therefore Scripture used a circumlocution:  "that is not clean."
Qualified "Righteousness"
The reason the Torah adds the words, "in his generations," thereby making room for interpreting the phrase disparagingly, rests on the principle stated here.  Had the Torah not added this qualification, revealing a disparaging dimension to Noah's character, then that might have led to error in something that has practical, halakhic implications.
The truth is that we find certain details in Noah's behavior that were not so very blameless or righteous.  One of the central problematic aspects of Noah's comportment is that he did not come to the rescue of others.  This is described in the midrash (Deuteronomy Rabbah 11.3):
Noah said to Moses:  "I am greater than you because I was delivered from the generation of the Flood."  Whereupon Moses replied:  "I am far superior to you; you saved yourself, but you had no strength to deliver your generation; but I saved both myself and my generation when they were condemned to destruction at the time of the Golden Calf"…It is as if there were two ships in danger on the high seas, on board of which were two pilots; one saved himself but not his ship, and the other saved both himself and his ship.  Who received the praise?  Surely the one who saved both himself and his ship.  Similarly, Noah saved himself only, whereas Moses saved himself and his generation.  Hence, you surpass them all (Prov. 31:29).
Were the Torah to have described Noah as perfectly righteous, without any reservation, we would mistakenly think that this behavior was the way a perfectly righteous man behaves.
We must also emphasize the aspects that are the opposite of praise for Noah, to make it clear to us how one should behave in actual practice.
The primary thrust of the approach that interprets the text disparagingly is not to disparage Noah the man, rather to provide the reader a didactic interpretation, warning the reader to beware of erroneous ideas that might arise upon reading the verse describing Noah.
From all that is told us about Noah the man, we must know about the depths to which the generation of the Flood had sunk and the necessary conclusion that Noah could not possibly have been as righteous as Abraham.  Nevertheless, the Torah must qualify this and say that his measure of righteousness should be considered righteousness by any criterion, although not so perfectly righteous, so that in comparison to Abraham, one could speak disparagingly of Noah ("he would have been accounted as of no importance").
Disparagement that Leads to Perfection
A controversy presented in the Zohar (Parashat Noah, Yerid ha-Sefarim, 1998, Bereshit I, p. 374) should be understood in like manner:
Rabbi Judah said:  Even though Noah was meritorious, he was not worthy of having the Holy One, blessed be He, protect the world on his account.  Note that Moses did not base his argument on his own merits, rather on the merits of the forefathers; but Noah did not have anyone on whose merits he could rely, as did Moses.  Rabbi Isaac said:  But with all this, since the Holy One, blessed be He, had said to him, "I will establish My covenant with you," he should have asked for mercy on them.
The Zohar presents a difference of opinion between Rabbi Judah and Rabbi Isaac.  According to Rabbi Judah, even though Noah was righteous, he could not come to the defense of the world because he had no merits of forefathers on which to rely, in contrast to Moses who could rely on such merits.  Rabbi Isaac's response was that "since the Holy One, blessed be He, had said to him, 'I will establish My covenant with you,' he should have asked for mercy on them."
According to this explanation, we can assert that the argument here was not over the facts.  Even Rabbi Isaac would admit that Noah's not praying for the people of his generations was not due to insensitivity or lack of caring.  Noah was silent because it was not feasible for him to pray for the people of his generation.
The truth must be said, and clearly so.  Rabbi Isaac informs us that even in such a situation it is one's duty to pray.  Were it not for clarifying this point, the reader of the Noah narrative, knowing that Noah had not prayed for the people of his generation yet all the same had been called "righteous" and "blameless," might conclude that there is no need to pray for the people of one's generation.  To avoid reading the flattering words about Noah in a manner that would lead to misunderstanding in later generations, Rabbi Isaac made an important clarification:  it is our duty to pray and ask for mercy for our fellows in very possible manner.
The approach to the text that emphasizes the less positive aspects of Noah in no way contravenes the general principle of "judging every person to his credit."  Even according to this reading Noah, the man, was righteous, although we must add some qualifications to clarify the matter so that the flattering depiction of Noah does not lead to a grave misunderstanding.
Indeed, had Rabbi Isaac not clarified this important point regarding the duty to use every means to pray and entreat on behalf of one's fellow, this fact might have scored Noah some bad points, his example possibly leading others to fail. Paradoxically, not only does the Sages' clarification of the disparagement of Noah turn out not to his discredit; it even speaks in his defense.  The fact that from Noah's comportment we can make this important clarification also speaks significantly in Noah's favor.
The Noah narrative teaches that Jews must employ every means to help their fellows.  They must pray and entreat the Lord on their behalf.  This point makes up for Noah's shortcoming in not praying for the people of his time.  True, Noah did not pray because it was not feasible for him to do so; but the conclusion is that he did not pray.  Now, in the continuation of his story, the need and importance of praying for others is brought home to us.  This corrects the shortcoming that, through no fault of his own, characterized Noah's behavior.
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