Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s ‘Unlocking The Torah Text: An In-Depth Journey Into The Weekly Parsha- Bereishit’, co-published by OU Press and Gefen Publishers
What force compels the rabbis to view Noach as mediocre and limited?
Why do they insist upon comparing Noach to Avraham, invariably to Noach’s detriment?
As a rule, each hero of the Torah is viewed in his own right and not in contrast with another.
The question is compounded by the fact that other passages in the text might have led us to a different conclusion. Noach, for example, is described as tamim, “complete,” while concerning Avraham God says, “Walk before me v’heyei tamim, and become complete.” Are we to assume that Noach had attained a degree of completeness towards which Avraham could only strive?
Finally, the contrast drawn by the rabbis between Avraham and Noach potentially acquires greater significance in light of the fact that these biblical figures ultimately become the progenitors of two very different populations. Avraham, of course, is the father of the Jewish people. The nations of the world, on the other hand, are referred to, in rabbinic literature, as B’nai Noach – the sons of Noach.
Are the rabbis simply comparing Noach to Avraham or are they conveying a message concerning the worldviews of their descendents?
The most obvious behavioral contrast between Noach and Avraham lies in their vastly differing responses to the calamities that are about to visit their worlds. When God informs Noach concerning the impending flood, destined to destroy all of creation, Noach is tellingly silent. He does not plead for God’s mercy nor does he argue for justice. Accepting the impending destruction of the world as inevitable, Noach sets himself to the fulfillment of God’s instructions. Without a word, with no apparent thought given to the fate of those around him, he builds the ark to ensure the survival of his own family and the animals that he will bring onto that ark.
In stark contrast stands Avraham’s dramatic reaction to the news of the impending destruction of the cities of Sodom and Amora.
Although he is well aware of the evil perpetrated by the inhabitants of these cities, Avraham enters into dramatic debate with his Creator on their behalf. With strength and, one might argue, with a degree of chutzpa, he refuses to accept God’s judgment. He does not rest until God agrees that the inhabitants of the cities will be spared if ten righteous tzadikim are found among them.
Here then, one obvious reason for the rabbinic rejection of Noach in favor of Avraham. One simply cannot remain silent in the face of other people’s pain. Noach’s submissive acceptance of such pain dooms him to mediocrity. Avraham’s struggle, on the other hand, even on behalf of people he knows to be evil, marks him for greatness.
There is, however, an even broader behavioral contrast that can be drawn between Avraham and Noach as their stories emerge in the Torah. This contrast carries theological implications of profound proportions.
Noach excels at following orders. He listens to God’s commandments completely and responds submissively and to the letter. As the Torah states, and then repeats, “And Noach did all that God commanded him, so he did.”
God says, “Build an ark,” and Noach builds an ark. God says, “Enter theark,” and Noach enters the ark. Even after determining that the flood has ended, Noach will not exit the ark until God commands him to do so.
Avraham, on the other hand, is constantly struggling with his destiny even when it means that he must actively confront his Creator. This confrontation is not limited to the debate concerning Sodom and Amora but, instead, characterizes Avraham’s relationship with God at all times.
Examples abound. To name a few:
When famine strikes the land of Canaan shortly after Avraham’s arrival, Avraham saves his family by descending into Egypt. He does not wait for God to tell him what to do.
When Avraham hears that his nephew Lot has been taken captive in battle, he immediately responds. Without waiting for instructions, Avraham pursues the enemies and frees his nephew.
When God turns to Avraham and proclaims, “Your reward will be very great,” Avraham argues, “My Lord God, what can you give me as long as I remain childless?”
When God promises, “I am the Lord, Who took you out of Ur Casdim to give you this land to inherit,” Avraham responds, “My Lord God, how do I know that I will inherit this land?”
Clearly, Avraham is active while Noach is reactive. Noach accepts the world and God’s will as it is. Avraham, on the other hand, struggles, even when his struggle takes him to the very throne of God.
Our tradition’s choice of Avraham over Noach was not a foregone conclusion. One could argue that, theologically, the model represented by Noach is the preferable one. After all, isn’t it our task to follow God’s will, to respond to His wishes without question?
And yet, we choose Avraham.
While other faith traditions might preach a stoic acquiescence to divine will, Judaism mandates active engagement and struggle. Our relationship with God is one of partnership, a partnership that permeates every element of our existence. We have the right – no, the obligation – to pray, to plead, even to wrestle with our Creator. And while we will ultimately accept God’s will at the end of the struggle, who knows what the struggle itself will have achieved? Who knows whether or not, on some level, our efforts have resulted in the bending of God’s will in our direction? Who can assess how the process has fundamentally changed us, thereby transforming God’s verdict concerning our destiny?
The rabbis reject Noach and embrace Avraham. In doing so they remind us that God prefers active engagement over passive submission.
We can now understand the Torah’s reference to Noach as “complete” while God speaks of Avraham as “becoming complete.”
To Noach, life was a destination potentially reached. Completeness could be attained through the fulfillment of God’s desires, the straightforward adherence to God’s commandments.
To Avraham, on the other hand, life was a journey without end. Completeness could never be fully attained, for as long as there remained breath, there remained potential challenge and growth.
The greatest blessing, therefore, that God could give to Avraham was “Walk before me and become complete.”
Partner with me, God says to Avraham and to us. Never rest, never stop, meet the challenge of each day, and travel towards completeness.