I have always been harsh on Noah. Described as “righteous in his generation” the question always comes up if his behavior is that of a righteous person or someone who goes along to get along. He is faced with the “end of all flesh” and told to build an ark in order to be saved along with only his immediate family. None of his words are recorded in the Torah, but one imagines him answering “how high?”
This image of Noah makes him a foil for the later story of Abraham who famously argues with G*d over G*d’s plan to destroy Sodom and the cities of the plain. In this rendering, Noah is called the fur coat tzaddik, a person who uses his resources to keep himself warm rather than find a way to start a fire and warm others.
In a way though, this reading of Noah dismisses the significance of what he faces. On some level the challenge of how much we are really willing to risk our own wellbeing for another is vital. This question does not typically arise in a moment of running into a burning building, donating an organ, or building a bigger ark. Rather, the question comes up in choices that are more daunting, yet easier to ignore. A willingness to send kids to a public school rather than choose private education. To face more uncertainty in healthcare for the sake of a bigger system. To recognize the limits of what we can acquire without depleting what another might need. I know that I have never reconciled that level of walking the walk with G*d with what I easily demand of Noah facing the opportunity to save himself.
Between these two poles of self-preservation and selflessness, there is a midrash, an interpretive tradition that shows the very human dilemma that Noah experienced. Rather than see the split-second imagery of G*d informing Noah of being saved from disaster and Noah’s beginning construction on an ark according to G*d’s blueprint, the midrash depicts the long unfolding of the story.
Noah first makes his own amends, does teshuva for any transgressions, despite already being chosen. His neighbors wonder at his piety and Noah tells them the end of the world is coming, but they only scoff. Having cleaned his own slate, Noah then plants the acacia trees which will grow strong enough to provide the wood for his vessel. Again his neighbors ask him why he is doing this and again they scoff at his answer that the world is coming to an end. And so forth as he cuts down the trees, measures the boards, builds the ark, and collects the animals. Each time, given a chance to make amends, his neighbors fail to take him seriously and ultimately perish in the Flood.
Unlike the Noah who seems unfazed by the toll that will be taken in the oncoming catastrophe, here we see a person who deliberately opens up for his neighbors every opportunity to return from the precipice. He undertakes this series of teachable moments presumably on the behalf of his doomed neighbors. At the same time, he does not go farther. He does not preach the way a prophet might, traveling the world to convince others to change their ways. He is passive, letting the moment come to him rather than seeking out or building an alternative to the disaster foretold.
This Noah feels very real to me. Not selfish in his fur coat, but protective of the blessing of being warm and concerned about throwing away the relative safety of G*d’s exclusive promise of salvation. This Noah speaks to my own dilemmas. He is willing to be visibly righteous and expansive in his concern for others. But he manages not to disrupt his own life and risk his bigger project in order to bring about change and through change, justice. Well. Maybe Abraham will do better.
Michael Bernstein, a Rabbi, has served since 2009 as Rabbi of Congregation Gesher L’Torah, a vibrant and dynamic Synagogue community in north Atlanta where each person’s story is embraced and Judaism is personal. He was ordained as a conservative Rabbi at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York in 1999. He and his wife Tracie have three children, Ayelet, Yaron and Liana.