Noah and Abraham

There were ten generations from Adam to Noah to show how long-suffering God is, since all these generations antagonized Him until He brought the waters of the Flood upon them.

There were ten generations from Noah to Abraham to show how long-suffering He is, since all these generations antagonized Him until our Father Abraham came and took the merit of them all.  (Avon 5:2-3).

I.   Tzaddik – Righteous

Three Words – There are three words formed from the same root, expressing the same concept.  Tzaddik is a righteous person; tzedek is justice in a court of law; tzedakah is ‘charity’.  Three words.  In common expression and understanding they are taken as three widely varying ideals: People think of a tzaddik as a ‘righteous person’ who engages in religious ritual.  Tzedakah, charity and benevolence based on the circumstances of one in need, is far removed from tzedek the strict and scrupulous application of principals of law without regard to the need or circumstances of the accused.

But the Hebrew language teaches us otherwise.  All three words are derived from the word in Hebrew for ‘justice’.  All three concepts are different expressions of the same theme: that God has created the world with a plan and that every human being must see himself as an executor of that plan.  Whether in his personal life, his legal dealings, or his disbursements to the needy, a Jew must see himself as an administrator of justice, apportioning his emotions, time, wisdom, and resources according to the wishes of their ultimate Owner.

Leviticus 19:15 – Do no wrong in judgment.  Do not favor the poor, and show no honor to the great; with justice shall you judge your neighbor.”

     The verse concludes with the positive command that complements and summarizes the three negative commands with which it begins.  In order to do ‘justice’ properly, the judge must see every person standing before him, rich or poor, as his neighbor, entitled to the same rights and privileges, subject to the same obligations and duties as he is himself.  His judgments are not handed down from on high; they are simply expressions of fairness and right as defined by the Torah (Hirsch).

Deuteronomy 24:13 – “You must return the security to him … that he may bless you, and it shall be for you as a righteous duty (tzedakah) before Hashem, your God.”

Form of Justice – As soon as you perceive that what you are doing is only your duty, your vocation, your task as a human being and as a Jew … (you will) act with no other purpose than to fulfill the will of your Father in Heaven, and to give light and warmth and nourishment just as a ray of sunlight gives light in the service of God.  Why should God give you more than you need unless He intended to make you the administrator of the blessing for the benefit of others, the treasurer of his treasures?  Every penny you can spare is not yours, but should become a tool for bringing blessing to others … That is why our Sages prefer to give the beautiful name of Tzedakah to this act of charity by means of material goods.  For tzedakah is the justice which gives to every creature that which God allots to it. (Horeb).

Tzaddik as Judge – A tzaddik, too, is one who exercises justice.  He knows that he is but the treasurer, not the owner, of the entire store of human and material resources.  The marching orders of his life are contained in the Torah.  For him to do otherwise than to carry them out meticulously would be a lack of justice that is comparable to robbery?  For, indeed, if he were to make use of the breath of life, the spark of intelligence, the potential of wealth in ways opposed to the will of God, is he not misappropriating them from the Owner who has entrusted him with their management?

Man is created with his treasury of potential and, as life goes on, it is filled or depleted.  What he is to have has been decided before his birth; what he does with it is left to him.  Each individual human being is born with a mission all his own.  The child born with the mission of being the teacher of the generation is endowed with the brilliance of intellect, memory, and analytical powers to do so.  The one who is expected to become a supporter of Torah and the poor will be given great wealth.  The mental and material treasures of a human being are the tools he is given to accomplish the goal God set for him, and the tools, can be used well, or they can be wasted.  Money can find its way to worthy causes or it can be invested in a  quest for more wealth; or it can be squandered at roulette wheels.  Man will be called to account for how wisely and righteously he has utilized the gifts placed in his trust.  But one thing must be clear: whatever he needs for his mission will be provided him (Michtav MeEliyahu).

II.  Noah

Genesis 6:9 – “Noah was a righteous man; he was perfect in his generation.”

Perfect Tzaddik – The Torah testifies that Noah was totally righteous, a tzaddik.  By definition he was a man whose life was an unending pattern of justice.  Like the righteous judge who apportions fairly between the claims of those who appear before him, Noah dealt with the conflicting claims that make up every human life, and apportioned his time and patience, his wisdom and knowledge, his wealth and property between himself, his family, and his neighbors.   God’s testimony to Noah’s righteousness is the most eloquent of statements; an unimpeachable guarantee that his every act was measured and considered – and just.

Yet we find declarations about Noah that seem to contradict the lofty characterization of him as a tzaddik.  The Midrash says that Noah was saved from the Flood only because he found grace in the eyes of God – but not because he was deserving!  Noah himself is quoted in the Midrash as saying to God, ‘And as for me, what they have done, I have done equally; what is the difference between me and them?’

What was the sin of the generation that caused the verdict against them to be sealed?  Robbery.  Yet Noah declared himself guilty of their sin, and the Midrash states that his salvation was nothing but an act of mercy because he found grace in God’s eyes.  How are we to understand that ‘righteous’ Noah, the tzaddik who apportioned every aspect of his existence to the proper service of God could be considered on a par with the corrupt?  How can we associate the sin of robbery with Noah?

Zohar says that Noah sinned in not having chastised his fellow men.  Therefore, the destructive, murderous waters of the Flood are called ‘the waters of Noah’ (Isaiah 54:9) – the waters were his responsibility because, had he fulfilled his responsibility fully, the waters might never have come.  Had he chastised and taught, done more than set a towering personal example of righteousness, then mankind might have listened and heeded and survived.  And the mission of Adam might not have ended in torrential failure.

Withholding Speech – Yes, righteous Noah indeed fulfilled his minimum obligations without flaw.  His ‘justice’ could not be faulted.  But he could have done more, and great people can be dealt with as severely for not doing right as for doing wrong.  He was guilty of withholding speech at a time when it could be beneficial to others.  To live amid sin and to have the opportunity to help eradicate it by speaking up, be reasoning, by chastising, by teaching, by pleading – and not to do so, is equally guilty.

What is more, to withhold speech where it is needed is itself considered robbery.  When Sarah accused Abraham of not supporting her against arrogant, rebellious Hagar, she said, ‘my wrong is upon you’ (Genesis 16:5).  Rashi explains that Abraham was to blame for Sarah’s humiliation because he refrained from reprimanding Hagar.  Noah was guilty of ‘robbery’ because he refrained from doing more than the strict dictates of righteousness required him to.

III.  Noah and Abraham

The Difficulty – The verse says that Noah was a righteous man in his generation.  Some of our Sages explain this in praise of Noah: if he was righteous in an evil generation, imagine how much greater he would have been in a time of righteous people.  Other Sages interpret it as an indirect criticism: he was considered righteous in his generation compared to the corruption surrounding him.  Had he lived in Abraham’s time, he would have been insignificant (Rashi; Genesis 6:9).  How are we to understand and resolve these differing views of Noah?

Heavenly scales weigh differently than do ours.  Righteousness in God’s eyes is measured by how well one judges in the universe of his own being.  In the heavenly scale, the great scholar who uses half of his mind’s potential is honored but slightly for the great knowledge gained by using half his capacity; he is dealt with harshly for not having done twice as much.  On the other hand, the laborer whose free moments are spent struggling over a chapter of Mishnah to the limits of his mental capacity, may rightly earn immense reward.  The Holy One, blessed be He, does not count the pages, but the hours.

Noah survived the destruction caused by the failure of the first ten generations, but Abraham did much more: he was so great that he earned for himself all the reward that should have been the lot of the ten generations that preceded him.  Abraham succeeded where all others failed, but how did he become more righteous than Noah?  If we properly understood the term tzaddik as referring to a person who attains the standard set for him by God, then the same pedestal should have borne both Noah and Abraham.

Abram Outgrows His Mission –  Abraham was born Abram (11:26).  His destiny was to be the moral leader of the nation of Aram.  Had he fulfilled that mission and nothing more, he would have been ‘righteous’.  But he did more.  A human has the capacity to rise above his mission.  Through dedication, prayer, love of God – all the attributes of the greatest figures – it is possible for a person to fulfill the mission set forth for him and be granted a new, higher one – just as it is possible for someone to fail so utterly that it becomes impossible for him ever to attain the good for which he was created.

Abram’s name was changed to Abraham because as the Torah says, “I have made you the (moral) father of a multitude of nations (Genesis 17:5).  As Rashi explains, he had outgrown his mission.  No longer was he the ‘Father’ merely of Aram, henceforth he was to become the ‘father’ of all mankind setting a moral standard that would become the goal of the next four millenia of human history and that would bring the Glory of God to earth on Mount Sinai, in the parchment and letters of the Torah, and finally, in the very being of his descendants.  This aspect of Abraham’s greatness overshadowed Noah’s.  Noah fulfilled his mission – he even attempted to rebuke his generations. But Abraham rose above his mission and thereby gained a new one.  Because he sanctified God’s Name far above the extent for which he was created, he earned the merit which would have belonged to all the others had they done what they were created to.

Noah faulted himself for not having done more.  He could have.  Abraham did. That a ‘perfect tzaddik’ is taken to account for not having done much more than he should have been expected to, is in itself an eloquent tribute to his greatness.

Ten Generations – The number ‘ten’ in Scriptures or the Oral Torah, is a reference to the Ten Heavenly Emanations by means of which God’s Presence descends from heaven and makes itself manifest.  Thus we have the ten statements with which God created heaven and earth; Ten Commandments; the ten tests of Abraham; and the ten plagues upon Egypt.  All of these phenomena were aspects of revelation.  Through each, man and the universe were elevated to new perceptions of God’s holiness and presence.

Of the same order were the ten generations from Adam to Noah and the ten from Noah to Abraham.  The number ten was not coincidental; God had a plan of development which was to proceed and develop until it reached its spiritual culmination in ten generations.  The master plan of creation was Torah and it was to enable man to perfect himself through the study of Torah and the performance of its commands that heaven and earth were created.  The divine intention was that God’s Presence be revealed behind the obscurity of earth’s hiddenness through Adam, and that man’s perception of it grow and intensify stage by stage, emanation by emanation, until the tenth generation when it was to reach its climax.  Then, the Torah would be given and all mankind would achieve God’s final purpose and become ‘a kingdom of priests and a holy nation’ (Exodus 19:6).

     The process was to begin again from righteous Noah who signaled a new and better beginning by bringing offerings of thanksgiving and dedication to God after the deluge.  Once again, God set in motion the chain of development that was to culminate in man’s perfection and the giving of the Torah.  Again, man did not rise to the challenge.  The ten generations sinned increasingly, angering God more and more, even attempting to challenge His mastery of the earth and do battle with Him by erecting their Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9).  But this chain of ten had a different ending than the earlier one.  Had it ended in total failure, then no one can know what sort of misfortune might have been visited upon man.  Instead it ended with Abraham.  By his own greatness, a greatness he proved by elevating himself through a succession of ten tests, he achieved in his person what all ten generations had failed to do.

Until Abraham – ‘Abraham performed the commandments of the Torah before they were given’ (Yoma 28b).  He reached so high a level that his own words and thoughts became Torah; he united himself with the mind of God until his own thoughts and wisdom became identical with God’s.  Thus, in a more symbolic sense, the Divine Plan was fulfilled and Torah was ‘given’ – not to the flawed generation of Babel – it was dispersed; not by giving the Tablets and the Torah in its present form – that was left for Moses and the children of Israel.  But the Torah was given and nurtured in Abraham who, in a real sense, began a new history of the world.

IV.  Crucial Moments

     The Sixth Century – The Divine Plan has decreed that there be times when particular manifestations of holiness are visited upon earth.  Genesis 7:11 “In the six hundredth year of the life of Noah…all the fountains of the great deep and the windows of the heavens were opened.” Zohar comments that the ‘wellsprings of the deep’ refers to the wisdom from below, man’s capability through the Oral Torah to broaden and develop the wisdom of Torah.  The ‘windows of heaven’ refers to the Written Torah, God’s gift from heaven.  From the moment of creation, that year was foreordained to be a time of awesome Godly manifestations.  Had man been worthy, he would have received the Written and Oral Torahs and been worthy of broadening and deepening it through the Oral Torah.

The six hundredth year of Noah’s life was chosen as a year when a flood of wisdom would descend upon earth.  But like all heavenly gifts, man is free to decide how he will use it or whether he will be worthy to receive it.

The generation of Noah should have been beneficiary of this ‘water’ – water as an allegorical reference to Torah.  But they were unworthy.  So unworthy were they that ‘water’ – which in God’s spiritual world refers to wisdom – became the water of the Flood that blotted out man.

The generation of the Dispersion, too, was destined for a blossoming of knowledge.  The gift of Torah was ready for them, but instead they became the subordinates of Nimrod.  They had all the prerequisites of greatness, but they abused them and so, lost the opportunity to become the fulfillment of God’s plan.

A New Potential – But there was one man among them who was not swept along by the tide.  He was forty-eight years old and he knew that his master was Hashem, not Nimrod.  Because he persevered, the blessing of Torah that was destined for his countrymen concentrated upon him.  He recognized at the age of three that there had to be a single God Who created and ruled the universe.  Now, at forty-eight, he experienced a new revelation of Godly wisdom – of Torah – in the year and the place destined for revelation – and recognized his Creator as he never had before.  His name was Abram and the Sages say, at the age of forty-eight, Abram recognized his Creator (Midrash).

Unlearned Lessons – In Babel, Abram recognized his Maker and Nimrod recognized his own sword and bow.  Noah was still alive as were his three sons – four people noble, righteous patriarch of the human race.  Surely Noah cried out against the lunacy of building the pointless tower in an insane effort to ascend to heaven and compete with God.  Surely he told his great grandchildren that a merciful God could turn wrathful in the face of such iniquity.  And Abram who would spend a lifetime of kindness in drawing people close to God’s service was unafraid of Nimrod and his threats of death; Abram, too, surely protested.  But the people didn’t listen.

Noah was perfect and righteous.  He could save his family, but not the world.  Abram, too, was perfect and righteous and he salvaged the sparks of holiness from the madness of Babel.  But then he added a new dimension to his mission by becoming Abraham, leader of all the world.  He was so great that he acquired all the merit that had been trodden underfoot by his own generation and all those before.  In so doing, he realized and fulfilled the purpose of creation and earned for his children the most treasured gift that God could bestow on any of his creatures – The Torah.

V.  The Ark

The Robber:  The Flood was precipitated by robbery.  God can endure patiently all varieties of sin, waiting for repentance, exacting punishment, building for better times in the future.  But robbery represents an unpardonable low in human behavior because it shows man as a selfish being concerned with himself alone even at the expense of others.

God tolerated Israel’s most grievous sins as long as they were loyal to and considerate of one another.  The present exile, the Exile of Edom, was brought about by Rome which, the Sages teach, was descended from Esau.  His dominant characteristic was violence and murder.  That, too, is akin to robbery. The murderer will allow nothing to stand in his way.  And if the life of another human being bars the achievement of his goal – he will shed blood to gain it.  Because Israel in the declining years of the Second Commonwealth sinned in its social life through jealousy, hatred, and failure to extend themselves for the benefit of one another, they were placed under the domination of the nation that exemplified cruel selfishness.

The destruction of the First Temple was caused because Israel sunk into lust.  It was exiled in the hands of Babylonia, a nation that was the leading oriental example of pleasure-seeking self-indulgence.  This exile fit the sin.

The Ark’s Lesson – To save earthly life by means of an ark and miraculous salvation from the ravages of the Flood would hardly have sufficed if the sin that finally caused the Flood had remained totally unredeemed.  Therefore, the ark had to be more than a protection against the raging elements outside it; it had to enclose creatures led and cared for by Noah and his family, forcing them together, imposing upon them an awesome regimen of selflessness that allowed not a free moment for self-indulgence.  Thereby, a human tradition was re-imposed.  Cain asked, ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’  Noah answered, ‘Yes, I am the keeper of everyone, from human being to gnat, from docile lamb to voracious lion.’

For Noah personally, this was a vital lesson.  He was taken to task for not having shown sufficient concern for his generation, for not rebuking them, praying for them – saving them.  He had been content to protect his own righteousness.  His labors in the ark demonstrated to him that he must feel a responsibility for all others.

Of course, his task could have been eased, but that would have destroyed a vital function of the ark.  For the ark was an incubator of goodness.  A necessary ingredient of the salvation was God’s command that the conditions for future survival be developed in the ark.  So Noah and his family became caretakers for all surviving animal life, laboring, trudging, serving, so that when the ancestors of humanity emerged from the ark to rebuild the deluged remains of the earth, they would do it with a reborn awareness of the role of man as a caring, unselfish being (Harav Gifter).

VI.  Shem and Japheth

Greece and Israel – The characteristics of Shem and Japheth were different, but they were intended to be complementary.  Japheth was blessed with beauty and sensitivity; Shem with holiness and the Divine Presence.  Of the many nations descending from both, the blessing of Japheth took root in Greece, while the blessing of Shem rested on Israel.

Noah’s blessing (9:27) –  “May God extend the boundaries of Japheth, but he will dwell in the tents of Shem”.  The Talmud teaches: “the beauty of Japheth (the Greek language, the most beautiful of tongues should be in the tents of Shem.” (Megillah 9b)  This interpretation of Noah’s blessing was used by the Sages to permit the translation of the Five Books of Moses into Greek.

Japheth’s Role – Noah used the name ‘Elokim’ in giving his blessing to Japheth.  It is the name of God that represents His dominance over nature for, as the commentators note, has the same numerical value, 86, as the law of nature.  Noah bestowed upon Japheth the blessings of nature, the ability to perceive and create beauty in this world, but he told his open, expressive, perceptive, gifted son that his achievements must ‘dwell in the tents of Shem.’  Otherwise, his gifts would be worse than wasted; they would become a destructive, corrupting force,  Beauty can elevate man and it can corrode him.  It can inspire man and it can degrade him.  For man is more susceptible to his heart and his senses than to his mind and his soul.

The Conflict – The beauty of Japheth and the tents of Shem reached their time of coming together during the period of the Second Temple.  It was begun upon the command of Cyrus, a descendant of Japheth.  His motives were pure at first, but later his respect for God and love for the Jews changed to wickedness (Rosh Hashanah 4a-b).  Had his motives remained pure, the Second Temple might have achieved the holiness and Divine Presence of the First, but because he fell from his grandeur, the Temple that originated with his benevolence could not become worthy of so lofty a stature (Yoma 9b-10a).

Then came the reign of Antiochus and the Syrian-Greeks.  The Syrians, bearers of the blessing of Japheth, imposed their culture upon Israel and attempted to destroy its allegiance to the God Who dwelt in the tents of Shem.  They defiled the Temple and chose three commandments as their prime targets:

The Sabbath: If God was the eternal Creator and continuous resuscitator of the universe and if His Torah formed the blueprint and formula for the existence and purpose of Creation, then Greek culture would have to stand aside and bow humbly before the tents of Shem.  This, Antiochus could not tolerate.

The New Moon:  the symbol of man’s obligation to instill holiness in time.  Time is meaningless until the Sanhedrin hallows it by proclaiming ‘the new moon is sanctified, it is sanctified!’, and when this is done, the festivals – the appointed meeting places in time between God and man – enter the calendar and raise it from a record of material pursuit and struggle to a vehicle of holiness.  Antiochus and his culture were not absolute; they were either servants of holiness or crude intrusions upon the human purpose.

Circumcision: the declaration that the physical and the spiritual must be intertwined.  The physical world is not separate from and independent of the spiritual.  The body must bear the mark of allegiance to God’s covenant, the restraining mark which tell it, ‘You are a servant not a master; you are host to a soul and you must elevate yourself to its exalted level.’  Beauty and pleasure were not the independent virtues Antiochus said they were.  They were confined by Torah or they were nothing.

A world without a Creator, a calendar without holiness, a body without restraint – these were the goals of a culture that had accepted the gifts but not the goals of Noah’s blessing to Japheth.  External grace and splendor covering a corrosive emptiness.  To this had the beauty of Japheth been brought.

Greece should have placed its culture at the service of Shem, used it to help provide a glorious dwelling place for the Divine Presence.  Instead it’s splendor became darkness.

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