In this week’s haftara, the navi Yeshayahu refers to the flood that destroyed the world not as mabul, but as Mei Noach, “the Waters of Noach.” This expression is repeated twice in the verse. (Yeshayahu 54:9). The Zohar teaches (Noach 67b) that Noach gained this dubious distinction – of forever being identified with the flood – by failing to prevent it. While it is true that Noach was righteous by the standards of his generation, a true tzaddik would have found a way not only to save himself but to avert the disaster.
Indeed, this is the behavior we see exhibited by Avraham and Moshe when they are similarly tested. Avraham pleads with Hashem on behalf of the people of Sodom; he welcomes everybody into his tent to learn about G-d to the point that Pirkei Avot tells us (5:1) that Avraham received credit for all the generations between Noach and him. The juxtaposition is made very clear by this Mishna: There are ten generations growing worse until in Noach’s time Hashem brings the flood. Yet ten generations after Noach, we find Avraham and no destruction at all. Similarly, Moshe, following the incident of the Golden Calf, pleads with Hashem to forgive and to spare Israel. Moshe goes so far as to break the tablets and insist that his own name be blotted from the record if Hashem destroys His people. Noach builds a teivah, steps inside, and locks the door.
The Ba’al HaTurim notes that when the Torah tells of Noach that he went with, or towards, G-d (in a strange transposition of the description of his great-grandfather Chanoch), the last letter of every word in the sentence (Bereishit 6:9) spells “Chacham” (a wise man) in reverse. Noach was a wise man from the last letters, going backwards – meaning that after everything has happened we can look back and see that he was the best one around. Noach is the type of wise man who looks back on history and sees what happened and why, understanding what it all means – but he doesn’t take it upon himself to change the course of history or to save mankind.
It behooves us, as the descendants of Avraham Avinu, having been given the tremendous opportunity of living in such dangerous and turbulent times, to emulate our ancestor Avraham and be the kind of wise people who will try to change the course of history and save humanity. We have been given the gift of Torah and the wisdom it contains, and we are in a position to understand the grave danger facing our civilization if people don’t repent their wicked ways. The Torah is telling us that we must not be like Noach and shut ourselves in a teivah; we should be like Avraham, with our tents open to every direction so that we can help our neighbors and they can learn to help each other so the catastrophe will be averted.