Thoughts on the parasha: Noah as a Tzaddik

Thoughts on the parasha: Noah as a Tzaddik

A popular theme for Divrei Torah on Parashat Noach is the question of interpreting the reference to Noah as “righteous in his generations.” Most often, this topic turns on comparisons of Abraham and Noah on items such as hospitality, or teaching; occasionally on the evils of their generation, or on close reading of various textual items.

My first question is just what is meant by dorotav “his generations” with Noah, Abraham’s generation, and the question of whether this is at all relevant—or why.  Although I will endeavor to present one. I am not sure that the comparison of the surrounding populace will be productive. As for the comparison of various tzadikkim: the discussion in classic commentators and modern derashot (viewed on the web) yields much rich guidance, but I am not sure that is what the language of Torah suggests. While parshanut makes it clear that there is much value is considering whether Noah would have been “the righteous man of his generation” had he lived in Abraham’s time, or in contrasting Noah and Abraham, analysis of the use of tzadik and tamim suggests a different direction.

“Generations of Noah and Abraham”

Scripture reports that Noah lived 950 years; he was born after the deaths of Adam and Seth—the first of his line who could not to have met these men, according to what is recounted in Genesis. His death came 350 years after the flood, a decade after the date of the Dispersion following the Tower of Babel, according to the usual Jewish reconstruction of these dates (ArtScroll has a handy chart by the way, towards the end of Parashat Noah).

Abraham’s generation perhaps was a lot better defined:  His life-span as given in the Torah was much shorter; traditional Jewish chronology has him born just about fifty years before the Dispersion. His “generations” included the leaders who built the Tower of Babel, and the people of Sodom and Gomorrah who were destroyed.  There is something unfair in the comparison with the generation of Abraham’s youth: If indeed all the world was united in Babylonia, according to the Torah’s narrative this option was no longer open, as God had promised never to destroy all of humanity again. So Sodom could be destroyed, but not Babylon. 

Abraham was asked by God to leave his homeland—but Scripture depicts him has having already begun the process, leaving Ur with his father, possibly in the dispersion after the fall of the Tower of Babel, participating in this process you might say. Also, Abraham is depicted as working with the King of Sodom and the other towns, although he rejects their proposal that he take a large share of the booty, depriving his allies and the people of Sodom of their share. Thus he is depicted as engaging with them; in contrast, Scripture does not depict Noah as engaging with his neighbors at all.

The Midrash kicks in with Abraham as a teacher (ve-et hanefesh asher asah be-Haran is said to refer to the students and followers attracted to his teaching) and a host. Noah in contrast is depicted as responding to taunts regarding the huge boat he was building, and not having any success whatsoever.

Usage of tzadik and tamim in the Noah and Abraham narratives.

Let’s look at the way these terms are used in Genesis.

a.       Tzadik and salvation.

ט  אֵלֶּה, תּוֹלְדֹת נֹחַ–נֹחַ אִישׁ צַדִּיק תָּמִים הָיָה, בְּדֹרֹתָיו:  אֶת-הָאֱלֹהִים, הִתְהַלֶּךְ-נֹחַ.

א  וַיֹּאמֶר ה’ לְנֹחַ,  .  .  .  כִּי-אֹתְךָ רָאִיתִי צַדִּיק לְפָנַי, בַּדּוֹר הַזֶּה.

Note the parallelism here.  Both forms of the Divine name; both texts have tzaddik and a reference to dor “generation.”

Noah is seen—by God—as a tzaddik, indeed the tzaddik of the generation. And so, God saves him from destruction. The term is used again in Genesis in a similar way. In Ch. 18, in two verses, Abraham puts it this way: can the fate of the tzaddik and the rasha “evil” be the same? Are they to be destroyed as one?

כג  וַיִּגַּשׁ אַבְרָהָם, וַיֹּאמַר:  הַאַף תִּסְפֶּה, צַדִּיק עִם-רָשָׁע.

כה  חָלִלָה לְּךָ מֵעֲשֹׂת כַּדָּבָר הַזֶּה, לְהָמִית צַדִּיק עִם-רָשָׁע, וְהָיָה כַצַּדִּיק, כָּרָשָׁע

Here, the argument against destroying the city is that there are tzaddikim there.  IN case you did not get the point—the tzaddik cannot be destroyed together with the rasha, consider Abimelekh’s response when he is confronted with the possibility of his entire house being destroyed:

אֲדֹנָי, הֲגוֹי גַּם-צַדִּיק תַּהֲרֹג.

b.      Noah is a tazdik (and Tamim, and someone who walks with God) but Abraham has to become one.

Noah is described as Tzaddik Tamim. But Abraham has to act—to earn, as it were, his righteousness—

וַיַּחְשְׁבֶהָ לּוֹ צְדָקָה.

and for that matter, God has to tell him to be tamim, and to walk with him, unlike Noah, who was already tamim and walking with God when we first met him!  But Noah has already pioneered the notion of a covenant between Man and God, so Abraham is offered a covenant together with the request to be wholehearted and walk before God; Noah had to build the Arak and survive the flood.

17:1 וַיֵּרָא ה’ אֶל-אַבְרָם, וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו אֲנִי-אֵ־ל שַׁדַּי–הִתְהַלֵּךְ לְפָנַי וֶהְיֵה תָמִים.

ב  וְאֶתְּנָה בְרִיתִי, בֵּינִי וּבֵינֶךָ; וְאַרְבֶּה אוֹתְךָ, בִּמְאֹד מְאֹד.

Noah as a model and foreshadowing

Clearly Abraham is to be considered in contrast with Noah in various ways, regarding righteousness, wholeheartedness, walking with God—and being taken out of evil situations. Noah is also something of a model for Moses; God gives Noah and his descendants laws after he leaves the Ark, being saved from the violence, perversity and evil of his generation—and gives Moses and Israel laws after they were saved from the violence and servitude of Egypt. We may also want to consider Noah a model to be contrasted with Lot, who is saved from Sodom and its violence. Abraham argues with God about whether any tzaddikim are in the town—although Lot is not called a tzaddik. Moreover, unlike Noah, who succeeds in bringing along his wife and his sons’ wives, Only Lot and his daughters escape. Afterwards, Noah plants a vineyard and his son “sees his nakedness ”—and Lot is made to drink wine and his daughters also may be said to uncover his nakedness—in the Torah’s usual words for incest.

So how are we to understand this?

1.       Noah was the most righteous man of his generation.  Only he and his family are saved; unlike the righteous in Sodom who, had they existed, might have saved even the evil, and like Avimelekh and his entire household. Although the covenant concluded afterwards says the entire world will never be destroyed again, Noah’s story is an argument for avoiding violence, anarchy, and perversion—and a promise that in the end, righteousness will win out.

2.       The righteousness, or the generations, can be compared, but it seems to me that Noah’s righteousness should not be contrasted with Abraham’s just on the basis of quantity or overall greatness. Instead, the issues of Noah’s righteousness and wholeheartedness, his covenant and his Law lay out key themes in the Torah.

3.       Noah’s story shows that the themes of being a tzaddik and being tamim apply to the whole world. Noah is saved from anarchy and violence; I’m not sure how to understand the story of Noah’s vineyard, but let’s say it is to indicate that ultimately, he is not completely saved from the sexual perversion of his age. Abraham is saved from idolatry and highly centralized government. Yoram Hazony’s new book, the Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture , makes much of the difference between Noah as farmer and Abraham as shepherd—but it also makes much of the differing responses to the evils of anarchy, and the tyranny of government, and this too plays a role in contrasting the narratives.

Noah’s legacy does not exactly lead to Abraham: Abraham chosen to receive blessings of property and progeny—and to be a model for the entire world (“all the people of the world will be blessed through you”).  Abraham insists on righteousness in his dealing with Sodom (booty in the four kings and five kings story), even when arguing with God. Abraham has to absorb the best of Noah’s qualities. 

Shabbat shalom.

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