Noach: Walking the Walk

The strength of solitude.
What was so great about Noah?

Table for Five: Noach

In partnership with the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles

 Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist

These are the generations of Noach. Noach was a righteous man; he was blameless in his generations. Noach walked with God.

-Gen. 6:9

Lt. (Res) Yoni Troy, Counselor, Beit-Hatzayar school for at-risk youth

Many sages read this verse as a backhanded compliment: unlike Abraham, who argued with G-d to try saving Sodom, Noach was concerned with saving himself. Was he righteous only in comparison to his sinful generation?

That critique of Noach is unfair. Sometimes we have no choice but to walk alone.

As an IDF officer, I often found myself in a catch-22 with no “clean” way out of a dilemma. I had a soldier whose mother was hospitalized and asked to go home to care for his family. We were on high alert and he was the only soldier who was trained for a certain critical task. I decided that he should stay. I had the difficult responsibility to look him in the eyes and break it to him that he couldn’t be spared and wouldn’t be able to take care of his family.

In those moments of deep solitude, I could identify with Noach. The strength of character he had to be righteous in his generation would make him a tzadik in any generation.

Understanding that his generation is flawed – and probably doomed – Noach tries a more subtle approach. He builds a huge ark and invites people to join him and repent. Instead, they mock him. Noach ends up saving the world, even if he cannot save humanity.

Noach’s strength of character is clear to me. I wish us all to be able to be to stand up and do what is right regardless of the pressures from our surroundings.

Batsheva Frankel, Director, New Lens Ed; Host of Overthrowing Education podcast

One December, when my son was three, we entered Walgreens and he excitedly pointed to the big inflatable Santa and said, “Look Ima, there’s Noah!” Having lived in a Jewish neighborhood his whole life, he had no other context from which to draw. When we first meet Noah in the Torah (not in Walgreens), it says he “walks with God.” This righteous man seems like someone we emulate, until commentators like Rashi compare him unfavorably to Abraham who says, “God, before whom I walked” (Genesis 24:40).

What’s the difference between walking with God and walking before God? Is one better than the other? In a Midrash, Rabbi Yehuda tells a parable of a chief who had two children, one older and one younger. The chief said to the younger child, “Walk with me,” and he said to the older one, “Go and walk before me.” Clearly, both children are important, loved and supported equally, but in the way that is best for them at the stage they are in. We are like those children. Sometimes we need God to be right beside us as Noah did, guiding us through challenges, keeping us on the right path. And sometimes, like Abraham, we are ready to move forward with daring and confidence, knowing that walking before God also means that God always has our back. I bless us all that we find comfort and joy in both.

Abe Mezrich, Poet and essayist

Noah “walked with God.” But once the storm arrives, Noah doesn’t walk with God anymore. He doesn’t walk with anyone. He enters the ship and when the doors shut, he stops walking.

Perhaps this is why Noah sends birds out when the rains stop. He knows dry land has appeared and someone needs to travel the world to find it. And he knows it cannot be him. It must be someone else.

Perhaps this is also why, by the end of his story, Noah is naked and drunk in his tent, alone. Once Noah walked about; no longer.

It is all the way in Leviticus that we find a response to Noah, the shut-in. I’m speaking of the ritual of the healed leper. When he is healed, the man will leave his isolation. He will meet a priest in a field. The priest will lift a bird from a stream and send it across the clearing—like Noah’s birds, sent from water to dry land. And the priest will anoint the cured one’s head in oil, and the once-quarantined man will join the community again.

Noah takes shelter and hides. That is the most righteous thing he could do. It breaks him.

In Leviticus, the book of sanctity, we learn how we are to treat the broken survivors. We must welcome them back. We must acknowledge the difficulty of the journey. We must anoint their heads. And with this we tell them that despite everything, they can walk again

Eli Goldberg, Sixth Grade Student at Harkham Gaon Academy

When one thinks of Noach they think of the flood, the ark, and the animals, but the first introduction to Noach in this week’s parasha describes his attributes.

The torah describes Noach as a “righteous man; he was blameless in his generation. Noach walked with G-d.”

On this first pasuk the Pardes Yoseph is curious why the description does not end with the term “a righteous man.” What does the rest of the pasuk add to our understanding of Noach? There are two categories of Mitzvot: there are Mitzvot that have to do with our commitment to G-d, and there are Mitzvot that have to do with our commitment to other people.

Some people focus on the Mitzvot between them and G-d and are not so careful about how they treat others. There are other people who are the opposite, they are very careful about how they treat other people but not so strict about keeping the Mitzvot between them and G-d.

The Torah is saying about Noach that he focused not only on one category, but on both. Noach was a righteous man in all ways, “he was blameless in his generation” because of how he treated and interacted with others and he “walked with G d” by believing in G-d and following in his ways. We can learn from Noach how to be truly righteous people by making sure that we care for others and their needs but also keeping our connection strong with G-d through his Mitzvot.

Nina Litvak, AccidentalTalmudist.org

Why did Noah merit to be the one chosen by God to survive the punishing flood and repopulate the world? What is the essential quality in Noah that God wants all of us to have?

The Ramban explains that Noah paid no heed to the idolators all around him, for “to God alone did he always cleave.” For 120 years, Noah withstood enormous social pressure to conform. Imagine if a mass delusion arose that the moon landing was fake. Imagine if for over a century (!) everybody was constantly trying to convince you the moon landing was fake, and viciously mocking you for disagreeing. Wouldn’t you at least briefly consider that the conspiracy might be true? Or pretend that you believed it to shut everybody up?

Noah was great because he ignored those who were considered great: “astrologers, enchanters and soothsayers.” But how did he withstand a century of insults and humiliation? The Ba’alei Brit Avram explains that Noah “never had any dealing with a human creature, but he would spend all day alone [i.e.with God.]” As evidence, he cites the fact that Noah didn’t have children until he was 600 years old.

The story of Noah contains vital lessons for us, his descendants. We must cleave to God, ignore the tyranny of the majority, and remove ourselves from people of low character. Rabbi Avigdor Miller teaches that we are who we surround ourselves with. Better to be alone with God than in a crowd of the wicked.

With thanks to Lt. (Res) Yoni Troy, Batsheva Frankel, Abe Mezrich, Eli Goldberg, and Nina Litvak.

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