Imagine the late Sen. Lloyd Bentsen facing off against Noah in the 1988 vice presidential debate. Noah might make a remark about the great patriarch Abraham, leaving Bentsen to rebut.
Imagined another way, Bentsen would probably tell the central character of the biblical flood: “You are no Abraham.”
And according to the sages of the Talmud, the senator would be right.
Overwhelmingly seen as a hero, Noah is, in fact, regarded by a minority as somehow lacking in character. Despite the fact that this week’s Torah portion opens with the seemingly unequivocal statement that “Noah was a righteous man,” it continues by clarifying that “he was blameless in his age.” Why the extra detail?
The minority view is that Noah was righteous only when compared to his generation. He stood out among a crowd of robbers and thieves, whose evil ways prompted the wholesale destruction of not only most of mankind, but most of the animal kingdom as well
Had he lived in the generation of Abraham, these rabbis reasoned, Noah would have amounted to nothing.
It’s a pretty harsh view of a man who in the face of derision and opposition built a giant ark simply because the Almighty told him to do it. But there’s a lesson to be learned in finding fault, however small, with Noah’s conduct.
According to this view, Noah’s weaknesses lay in the fact that in the deepest core of his being, he never believed the flood would ever happen. Sure, he built the ark; but he never really believed he would ever have to use it. When the rains began, he stayed outside; it would end up taking a torrent of water to push him into the wooden ship. Because he didn’t believe, he didn’t pray for his fellow man, an omission the Zohar credits with relegating the entire earth to destruction. When Abraham, on the other hand, is told of Sodom’s pending uprooting, he argues with Heaven to spare the entire city.
Put in another, albeit incredibly simplistic, way, Noah put up a lawn sign. Abraham met with the people. Noah committed his talents, but Abraham committed his being. Noah did the minimum of what was asked of him, whereas Abraham went the extra mile.
Who knows what could have happened had Noah done more, but the Torah provides a hint for our own lives. When the ark was built, it contained a curious structure called a tzohar, which can be variously translated as a window or a precious stone that emanated light.
In whatever mission we have, we can become a window, letting in the light from outside in order to dispel the darkness within. This is the example set by Noah.
The much more powerful path, however, is to shine from within in order to illuminate the outside, adding light to the world instead of rechanneling it. This is the mode of Abraham, whose self-sacrifice set in motion the world coming to appreciate Godliness.
Rabbi Joshua Runyan, former news editor of the Jewish Exponent, is the editor of Chabad.org News. E-mail him at: [email protected] chabad.org.