How are we to judge Noah against the expanse of history? Was he truly righteous or not?
The story of Noah and the Ark begins with a strange description of the title character: “Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his age” (Genesis 6:9). It would have been enough to say that Noah was righteous, explaining why God chose him out of all of the people on earth to build the Ark. But the words “in his age” seem to confine this view of Noah to one time and place. How are we to judge Noah against the expanse of history? Was he truly righteous or not?
The Talmud steps into the breach (Sanhedrin 108a). First, it provides the explanation of Rabbi Yohanan: “Rabbi Yohanan said: ‘In his age,’ but not in other ages.” Rabbi Yohanan interprets “in his age” as a qualifier. For him, Noah could only be called righteous if you compared him to the lawless and sinful society in which he lived during his lifetime. In another time and place, in a society of justice and goodness, his character would have been judged much differently, and perhaps not favorably at all.
Next, the Talmud provides the explanation of Resh Lakish: “Resh Lakish said: [Even] ‘in his age’ — how much more so in other ages!” Resh Lakish interprets “in his age” as praise. For him, the fact that Noah could be righteous in the midst of a sinful society shows that Noah would have been judged even more favorably had he been born into a just society, where, presumably, it would be much easier to act righteously.
Both of these explanations provide us with wisdom about how to judge individuals who live in societies that are failing to act ethically or morally — that is, wisdom about how to judge ourselves, since we all live in a less-than-perfect society.
Rabbi Yohanan teaches that simply refraining from immoral action when others are sinning is not enough to qualify a person as righteous. Indeed, many later commentators have criticized Noah for not doing enough to avert the flood. Noah could have argued with God, they say. Noah could have tried to influence those around him to forsake their immoral ways and turn back to the good.
Instead, Noah listened to God in silence and then saved only himself and his family, along with the animals God specifically commanded him to bring on the Ark. When we face a morally dangerous situation, we have an obligation to do more than simply refrain from sinning personally. When others are acting immorally, we are called upon to try to influence them for the better, to try to replace evil with good.
Resh Lakish teaches that when all around us are sinning, even small efforts to stem the tide of immoral behavior are evidence of righteousness. Some commentators note that God asked Noah to build the Ark rather than providing it for him, a difficult task that took some time. Noah’s efforts provided a chance for others around him to re-evaluate their actions, to question their behavior and to see that there could be another way. When we take small steps to act morally even in the face of great opposition, we open up the way for others to follow in our footsteps, and we bring the divine voice more fully into the world.
As we re-engage with the world after the High Holidays, may we feel obligated to advocate for moral action in others as well as ourselves, and may we always see that our small efforts can have great consequences.
Rabbi Adam Zeff serves as the rabbi of Germantown Jewish Centre in Philadelphia. Email him at: [email protected]