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The Hero for the Simple People

Thank Goodness, Noach Was No Saint

    Rabbi YY Jacobson

    3468 views
  • October 31, 2019
  • |
  • 2 Cheshvan 5780
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Class Summary:

The Talmud, ever sensitive to nuance, takes note of the fact that the words, "Noah was a righteous man, perfect was he in his generations” are superfluous. “In his generations” can be seen as a compliment or as a criticism. One interpretation is that even in his generations he was righteous. Even living amidst such a degenerate society, he shined. a second interpretation is the exact opposite. Only in his generations is he described as a righteous individual; relative to the people around him he was perfect. Yet compared to people of higher caliber, he would “amount to nothing.”

This is disturbing. Why would one choose a critical view when one can choose a complimentary one? If the clause "in his generations" can be understood both ways, why propose a negative interpretation? 

In truth, by degrading Noach, the Rabbis turned him into one of the most inspiring figures in history, a role-model for the ordinary woman and man. 

In commemoration of the 20th yahrtzeit of Chanoch ben Chaim Simcha, Herman Mayer. Dedicated in loving memory by his daughter Helen Ross.

Henry Kissinger’s Suit

There is an old Jewish anecdote about former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger who decides to make for himself a custom-made beautiful three-piece suit of the finest material. During his next trip to Italy, he has himself measured by a world-renown designer, who subsequently gives him the material for his suit.

When he arrives in Paris and presents the material to the skilled tailor, the man measures his body and says: “Sorry, Mr. Kissinger, but a man your size needs at least another two inches of material.”

Surprised, Dr. Kissinger continues his journey to London. There, the tailor says, “I am sorry, Mr. Secretary of State, but to turn this into a suit for your physique, I need another three inches of the material.”

Disappointed, he arrives in Beijing. There the widely acclaimed Chinese tailor remarks, “I really don’t understand what you were thinking, Mr. Kissinger. Your body is far larger than this material. We need another five inches.”

An angry Dr. Kissinger arrives in Tel Aviv. He presents the material to a local Jewish tailor. The tailor measures him and says: “You actually don’t need so much material, but I will cut off some of it and will turn the remainder of it into a stunning suit.”

Kissinger is astonished. “Can you explain this to me,” he asks the tailor. “I have traveled the world, and everybody claims that I need much more material. What is going on here?”

“Oh, it’s quite simple,” the Israeli tailor responds. “In Italy, you are a big man; in Paris, you are even a bigger man; in London, you are a great man, and in Beijing, you are a giant.

“But here in Israel, you are a small man.”

The Debate on Noah’s Persona

What is nothing but a classic Jewish joke becomes reality when it comes to one of the most important figures in the Hebrew Bible—the man who single-handedly saved civilization: Noah. What the tailor told Kissinger is what we actually did to poor Noah. We cut him down half-his-size, which is both astounding and problematic.

The Torah states in the opening of this week’s portion:

This is the history of Noach. Noach was a righteous man; he was wholesome in his generation; Noach walked with G-d.

The Talmud,[1] and Rashi, ever sensitive to nuance, take note of the fact that the words, "in his generation" are superfluous. Obviously, Noach lived and functioned in his generation. Why could the Torah not say simply “Noach was a righteous man, wholesome he was; Noach walked with G-d?"

The Talmud offers two opposing explanations. In the words of Rashi:

Among the sages, there are those who interpret this as praise of Noach: If he was righteous in his [corrupt] generation, certainly he would have been even more righteous had he lived in a generation of righteous people. Others interpret it negatively: In relation to his wicked generation he was righteous; had he been in Abraham's generation he would not have amounted to anything.[2]

Who was Noach? is the question. Was he really a man of extraordinary stature or just a cut above the rest? Did G-d save him because he was a “perfect tzaddik,” or there was nobody better?

Why Denigrate a Hero?

Yet there is something disturbing about this discussion. The Torah is clearly trying to highlight Noach’s virtue. “But Noah found favor in the eyes of G-d,” is how the previous portion concludes.[3] Then, we have the above verse: “This is the history of Noach. Noach was a righteous man; he was wholesome in his generation; Noach walked with G-d.” Later in the portion G-d says to Noach: “I have found you righteous before Me in this generation.” G-d, clearly, is trying to extoll Noach. What drove some Rabbis to denigrate him and say that relative to other generations he would amount to nothing special?

Besides, when you can choose a complimentary interpretation and perspective, what drives some to choose a negative and condescending interpretation?[4] It runs against the instructions of the Torah to give people the benefit of the doubt. 

What is more, Noach is the only person in the entire Tanach who is called a Tzaddik, a perfectly righteous individual. G-d tells Noach: “I have found you to be a tzaddik before me in this generation.”[5] And we, the Jews, say: Yes, but not really…

There are various interpretations. One of my favorite ones was presented by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, in 1964.[6] Not only were the Rabbis not trying to minimize Noach’s virtues; they actually wanted to highlight his praises even more. Equally important, they were trying to teach us all a transformative lesson.

Who Can Change the World?

What did Noach accomplish? He saved all mankind. In the absence of Noach, humanity would have become extinct soon after it has begun. Single-handedly he ensured the continuity of life on earth. He is the man who builds an ark, rescues all living organisms, and ensures our world would survive.

An achievement indeed, if there was ever one.

And who is the individual who achieves this feat? A person called by the Torah “a man of the earth.”[7] The only story the Torah tells us about Noach, outside of constructing the Ark and spending a year in it during the Great Flood, is that he was a farmer; he planted a vineyard, became intoxicated, and exposed himself. That’s all. The last thing we hear about him is that he lay there in his tent, drunk and bare.

The Rabbis deduce from the text that “Noach, also, was of those people who were wanting in faith: he believed and he did not believe that the Flood would come, and he would not enter the Ark until the waters forced him to do so.[8]

Noach was a fine man, who lived a decent, moral life, and tried to do what G-d wanted, but was not without his flaws, doubts, and struggles. Compared to Abraham he would not amount to much.

But look what this simple fellow achieved! In a society dripping with greed and temptation, Noach held to his morals, walked with G-d, and swam against the tide, saving the planet from destruction. Civilization survived not because of a towering, titanic figure; but because of a simple man who had the courage to live morally when everyone around him behaved despicably.

Remarkably, by degrading Noach and stating that in other generations Noach would be eclipsed, the Rabbis turned him into the most inspiring figure, someone who serves as a model for all of us ordinary men and women. Noach is my hero, the hero of the ordinary cut-of-the-mill individual who is no great thinker, warrior, leader, or man of transcendence. By explaining the biblical text the way they did, the Sages turned Noach into a symbol for us ordinary people, who appreciate a fine cup of wine and a little schnaps, how we can make a difference in people’s lives.

The message of Noach is life-changing. You don’t need to be Abraham or Moses to transform the world. Noach was just another kid on the block, but look what he did! With your own courage not to toe the line of corruption, fakeness, and falsehood, with a little gentleness, friendliness, compassion, kindness, and goodness you can save lives, ignite sparks, and create an “ark” of sanity amidst a raging flood.

Noach was not a saint? Thank goodness. I have heard enough about saints in my life; now tell me about real people, who struggle with fear, doubt, and pain. Tell me about the guy whose IQ was not 180; he was not valedictorian of his school; he did not get a full scholarship to Oxford; he was not a tycoon or bestselling author. He was not a guru or a holy man. He was not the greatest warrior, thinker, artist, or leader. He was just a guy trying to do the right thing when everyone around him descended to greed and apathy. And look what he accomplished.

In the presence of great moral giants, he might be eclipsed, the Talmud says. Standing near Abraham he would appear insignificant. And that is exactly what made him so significant! He set a standard for those of us who appear in our own eyes as insignificant.

Uniform Biographies

Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner, dean of Yeshiva Rabanu Chaim Berlin and author of Pachad Yitzchak, laments in a letter about biographies published on the lives of Jewish leaders and rabbis. They are “cookie cutter” biographies, in which every one of them was born a holy genius. At the age of six, he knew the entire Tanach by heart, and at the age of twelve he mastered the Talmud, and his mother had to force him to eat. There is almost no trace of struggle, failure, crisis, doubt, anxiety, temptation, confusion, adversity, and the winding viscidities of the path toward individual self-discovery. Besides it being a dishonest portrayal, it deprives the biographies of having educational value. How can I try to emulate a flawless and brilliant saint?

It is an educational mistake to see spiritual success in the absence of struggle and the repression of authentic emotions. Look at Noach. He was a flawed man, and he saved the world!

One day, an old man was walking along a beach that was littered with thousands of starfish that had been washed ashore by the high tide. As he walked, he came upon a young girl who was eagerly throwing the starfish back into the ocean, one by one.

Puzzled, the man looked at the girl and asked what she was doing. Without looking up from his task, the girl simply replied, ‘I’m saving these starfish, Sir.’

The old man chuckled aloud, ‘Young woman, there are tens of thousands of starfish and only one of you. What difference can you make?’

The girl picked up a starfish, gently tossed it into the water, and turning to the man, said, “It made a difference to that one!’”

So today, decide to emulate Noach: A simple man who was true to his soul and his G-d. In your own way, stand up to lies, greed, and promiscuity. Become a beacon of light, love, and hope. Construct an ark where others can find shelter from a flood of pain and insanity. Stop giving the excuse that you are just a regular guy, minding your own business. All of us can be Noach’s.

"I'm only one, but I am one. I can't do everything but I can do something, and what I can do, I ought to do.”[9]

___________

[1] Sanhedrin 108a

[2] In the Talmud ibid. it’s a debate between Rabbi Yochanan (derogatory) and Reish Lakish (complimentary). Rabbi Chanina continues to say: “Rabbi Yochanan’s view may be illustrated by the parable of a jar of wine stored in a cellar filled with jars of vinegar. In such a place, the fragrance of the wine is sensed, because of the vinegar’s fumes; in any other place, its fragrance might not be sensed. Rabbi Oshaiya said: Resh Lakish’s view may be illustrated by a vial of fragrant oil lying amid excrement: if its fragrance is sensed even in such surroundings, how much more so amid spices!”
Perhaps we can suggest that these two sages’ dispute is connected to their own life story. Rabbi Yochanan was raised in piety and holiness; Reish Lakish was a gangster and gladiator who later became one of the greatest Torah sages of his age (Talmud Bava Metizah 84b). Reish Lakish, remembering his past, and knowing the dark side of human nature and its great potency, teaches that if Noach could succeed in his corrupt generation to live morally, certainly he would have been righteous in a more spiritual generation. Reish Lakish understood the depth of the human struggle against darkness and the enormity of the challenge some people face, and he could only stand in awe of Noach’s moral standing in his generation. Rabbi Yochanan, on the other hand, could not fully appreciate what Noach had to contend against. Yet the questions in this essay are still unanswered.

[3] Genesis 6:8

[4] In the Ethics of our Fathers (1:6) we are enjoined to “judge every person favorably,” giving them the benefit of the doubt. It is the sages who go so far as to declare that "the Torah is loath to speak negatively even of a non-kosher animal" (Talmud Bava Basra 123a; Pesachim 3a), a lesson derived from this very portion of Noach! If the clause "in his generations" can be understood both ways, why propose a negative interpretation? In the words of the famed Polish-Italian Talmudic sage and commentator the Beer Sheva (Rabbi Yissachar Ber Eilenberg, 1550-1623):

"כל ימי הייתי קוהה מאחר שאין לו הכרע אם לגנאי או לשבח נאמר בדורותיו, א"כ קשה על רבי יוחנן למה משכו נפשו לדורשו לגנאי" (באר שבע סנהדרין דף קח, א).

“All my life I was grinding (my teeth). Since the term “in his generation,” can be explained positively or negatively, why did Reb Yochanan’s soul compel him to explain it disgracefully?”

[5] Genesis 7:1

[6] The Rebbe shared this during a public address (“farbrengen”) on Shabbos Parshas Noach 5725, October 10, 1964. Published in Likkutei Sichos vol. 5 pp. 281-283.

On another occasion, the Rebbe shared another explanation (Likkutei Sichos vol. 25 Parshas Noach). Briefly: The sages had some independent criticism of Noach for not trying to save his generation (see Zohar Bereishis 66; 107). When they observed the term “in his generation,” they understood that this was written to underscore the flaw of Noach. They felt it was important to bring out this flaw not in order to denigrate Noach (especially since in his position he may have done the best he could) but to caution others not to follow in the same direction. What is more, Noach himself would appreciate this interpretation so that his behavior (which may have been right during his time, under those unique circumstances) should not serve as a paradigm for others at other times.

[7] Genesis 9:20

[8] Rashi to Genesis 7:7, quoting Midrash Rabah Bereishis 32:6

[9] My thanks to Rabbi Moshe Kahn (Melbourne) for his assistance in developing this insight.

Please leave your comment below!

  • CMW

    Chaya Miriam Wolper -1 year ago

    Regarding the statement, "What is more, Noach is the only person in the entire Tanach who is called a Tzaddik, a perfectly righteous individual." Isn't Yosef called Yosef HaTzaddik?

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  • S

    Sara -4 years ago

    Amazing clarification of something that always bothered me.

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  • Z

    Zvi -4 years ago

    Cookie Cutter Biographies

    שלום וברכה!

    Firstly, thank you for shiurim.  I listen regularly and enjoy them.

    Re the "Cookie cutter" approach in frum biographies.

    MANY years ago, (20+) Rabbi Yankie Horowitz (the one in Monsey working with OTD kids,
    etc.), told a story of how he and a friend were discussing a mutual friend of theirs from
    their younger days who was an then up-and-coming gadol.

    His friend said to him (Rabbi H.), "I knew him before he was a קדוש מרחם....".   :-D

    קורץ און שארף

    גוד שבת.

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  • N

    Nicole -4 years ago

    Amazing !!! Never read it this way before! So pleased the perspective is righted! Yasher koach Rabbi!

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  • J

    Judith -4 years ago

    The best ever interpretation because we can all relate to it thank you Rabbi YY.

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  • T

    Theresa -4 years ago

    I live not far from Indonesia.
    Could you please tell me regarding this paragraph you wrote.
     
    Why do you feel its a dishonest portrayal? Do you believe there were gifted children who were blessed to be so.
    I am a Noahide. Ofcourse i have heard alot of fairy tales when i was a xtn.
    But i do read the biographies and some have been blessed from birth, like the holy Rashbi, Baalshemtov and some of the great luminaries which i am sure you know more than me. The Vilna gaon and such. I dont think anyone has said they are flawless.
    Seeing such great sages, it does have its educational values.
    That even if we cant be great as them, we can do our best to stand in their shadows. And perhaps they dont mention any hardship they underwent because they never saw their lives as going through hardships.
    I remember reading about the Chofetz Chaim. A rich American came and visited him, and he seemed surprised
    that a great sage like the Chofetz Chaim was living in a simple wooden house, 
    not much comfort as the American would see it with his wealth. So the Chofetz Chaim asked, where he was staying. The man mentioned a modest inn saying he was only passing by and it was good enough. To which the Chofetz Chaim
    replied, he too is just passing through and this is good enough. And sages like the chofetz chaim, 20th century I think, felt the previous sages were so great he was so small next to them.
    And he learnt a lot from them.
    Blessings, and Shabbat Shalom, 
    Theresa

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  • S

    sara -4 years ago

    Torah is not a biography, Hash-m wants us to LEARN all there is to learn from our GREAT ones...

    BSD

    If you notice that the world was populated with MANY people - as it says for the descendents of Adam - that they birthed sons and daughters.  Did you ever wonder that if everyone has the potential for greatness - why are there only relatively few people spoken about in the Torah?   I don't remember the author of the quote that says that most people never realize their greatness and live lives of mediocrity.  By virtue of that truth, of course!  Noach is one of history's heros. 

    Yet - the Torah wants us to learn from the good as well as from the mistakes or all Torah personalities (on their level) for our own growth.  The Torah, as well as every entity in our being is not only dynamic and perpetually renewed every moment, but the lessons that each of us learn in the Torah or just from life are perfectly custom designed for us to internalize in order to for us to edge up in our desire to bond and emulate our Creator in our middos and life mission.

    The epiphany I merited to perceive today is that - as great as Noach was - he is not one of our Patriarchs because he represents the paradigm of teaching from fear vs Avraham's outreach being from only love.  He presented the building of the teivah as a scary notion for people who were so deeplly ensconced in their ways that for them to grasp the overwhelming notion that if they don't change their ways, they're finished - was much too difficult to accept.  I'm not saying that the "love approach" would have worked with so corrupted a generation for sure - but it's not really our job to attempt to "change" anyone but ourselves.  WE are responsible to recognize Hashem's loving approach to us and emulate that loving approach when we want to elevate our own being as well as those in our environment.  

    So, if one compares the strategy of connecting our fellow humans with our Beloved Creator of Avraham Avinu - using his chessed to make his guests aware of Hashem's perpetual loving chessed to them vs. Noach's opportunity to warn his generation about their future destruction through his building of the teivah - well, which one would work on you?

    There are other insights I was happy to notice but I needed to get the one above and I hope to remember it when I need to:0

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  • MC

    Miriam Cohen -4 years ago

    Image

    Dear Rabbi Jacobson,

    Thank you for this inspiring talk.

    My question is about the image displayed. I understand that the Rebbe, was very particular that all images used for educational purposes should be exactly according to the Torah describes. The image used seems to have a boat base with an Ark inside. Please correct me if I am wrong.

    Please correct tailor maid to made. 

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  • F

    F.L.Landau -4 years ago

    What an empowering essay!

    Yasher koach!

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  • CNH

    Chaiyim Noson Halpern -4 years ago

    ועל דרך זה כתב הגר"י הוטנר זצ"ל בספרו אגרות ומכתבים (מכתב קכ"ח) וז"ל רעה חולה היא אצלינו שכאשר מתעסקים אנו בצדדי השלימות של גדולינו הננו מטפלים בסיכום האחרון של מעלתם, מספרים אנו על דרכי השלימות שלהם, בשעה שאנחנו מדלגים על המאבק הפנימי שהתחולל בנפשם, הרושם של שיחתינו על הגדולים מתקבל כאילו יצאו מתחת יד היוצר בקומתם ובצביונם, הכל משוחחים מתפעלים ומרימים על נס את טהרת הלשון של בעל החפץ חיים זצ"ל, אבל מי יודע מן כל המלחמות המאבקים המכשולים הנפילות והנסיגות לאחור שמצא החפץ חיים בדרך המלחמה שלו עם יצרו הרע, משל אחד מני אלף (!!) "

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  • Anonymous -4 years ago

    Thank you for these insights

    Dear Rabbi Jacobson,

      Thank you for this indepth look at Noah. It is excellent; many helpful and interesting insights.

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  • Anonymous -4 years ago

    R' Yochanan vs Reish Lakish

    Thank you very much for the distinction between R' Yochannan and Reish Lakish vis a vis their backgrounds on how they viewed Noach.

    Also,  I read somewhere that Noach did not pray for his generation-- or that he did not actively recrute people for the Ark and he was held accountable for this?

    Can you elaborate?

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  • Anonymous -4 years ago

    Please remove "Good Samaritan" reference; it is antisemitic

    Rabbi YY,  thanks for this; but please immediately remove the "Good Samartian" reference. It is actually an xian story that denigrates the Jews. Please see here for reference:  https://ohr.edu/ask_db/ask_main.php/230/Q3/

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Essay Noach

Rabbi YY Jacobson
  • October 31, 2019
  • |
  • 2 Cheshvan 5780
  • |
  • 3468 views
  • Comment

In commemoration of the 20th yahrtzeit of Chanoch ben Chaim Simcha, Herman Mayer. Dedicated in loving memory by his daughter Helen Ross.

Class Summary:

The Talmud, ever sensitive to nuance, takes note of the fact that the words, "Noah was a righteous man, perfect was he in his generations” are superfluous. “In his generations” can be seen as a compliment or as a criticism. One interpretation is that even in his generations he was righteous. Even living amidst such a degenerate society, he shined. a second interpretation is the exact opposite. Only in his generations is he described as a righteous individual; relative to the people around him he was perfect. Yet compared to people of higher caliber, he would “amount to nothing.”

This is disturbing. Why would one choose a critical view when one can choose a complimentary one? If the clause "in his generations" can be understood both ways, why propose a negative interpretation? 

In truth, by degrading Noach, the Rabbis turned him into one of the most inspiring figures in history, a role-model for the ordinary woman and man. 

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