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Abraham, the Sages were convinced, was a greater religious hero than Noah. We hear this in the famous dispute among the Sages about the phrase that Noah was “perfect in his generations,” meaning relative to his generations:
“In his generations” – Some of our Sages interpret this favorably: if he had lived in a generation of righteous people, he would have been even more righteous. Others interpret it derogatorily: In comparison with his generation he was righteous, but if he had lived in Abraham’s generation, he would not have been considered of any importance (Rashi to Genesis 6:9).
Some thought that if Noah had lived in the time of Abraham he would have been inspired by his example to yet greater heights; others that he would have stayed the same, and thus been insignificant when compared to Abraham. But neither side doubted that Abraham was the greater.
Similarly, the Sages contrasted the phrase, “Noah walked with God,” with the fact that Abraham walked before God.
“Noah walked with God” – But concerning Abraham, Scripture says in Genesis 24:40:“[the Lord] before Whom I walked.” Noah required [God’s] support to uphold him [in righteousness], but Abraham strengthened himself and walked in his righteousness by himself (Rashi to Genesis 6:9).
Yet what evidence do we have in the text itself that Abraham was greater than Noah? To be sure, Abraham argued with God in protest against the destruction of the cities of the plain, while Noah merely accepted God’s verdict about the Flood. Yet God invited Abraham’s protest. Immediately beforehand the text says:
“Then the Lord said, ‘Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do? Abraham will surely become a great and powerful nation, and all nations on earth will be blessed through him. For I have chosen him, so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just, so that the Lord will bring about for Abraham what he has promised him’ ” (Genesis 18:17-19).
This is an almost explicit invitation to challenge the verdict. God delivered no such summons to Noah. So Noah’s failure to protest should not be held against him.
If anything, the Torah seems to speak more highly of Noah than of Abraham. We are told: “Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord” (Genesis 6:6). Twice Noah is described as a righteous man, a tzaddik:
1) “Noah was a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time, and he walked with God” (Genesis 6:9).
2) “The Lord then said to Noah, ‘Go into the ark, you and your whole family, because I have found you righteous in this generation’ ” (Genesis 7:1).
No one else in the whole of Tanach is called righteous. How then was Abraham greater than Noah?
One answer, and a profound one, is suggested in the way the two men responded to tragedy and grief. After the Flood, we read this about Noah: “Noah began to be a man of the soil, and he planted a vineyard. He drank some of the wine, making himself drunk, and uncovered himself in the tent” (Genesis 9:20-21).
This is an extraordinary decline. The “righteous man” has become a “man of the soil.” The man who was looked to “bring us comfort” (Genesis 5:29) now seeks comfort in wine. What has happened?
The answer, surely, is that Noah was indeed a righteous man, but one who had seen a world destroyed. We gain the impression of a man paralyzed with grief, seeking oblivion. Like Lot’s wife who turned back to look on the destruction, Noah finds he cannot carry on. He is desolated, grief-stricken. His heart is broken. The weight of the past prevents him from turning toward the future.
About the Author: Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth, is the author of many books of Jewish thought, most recently “The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning.”
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