Probably the most well-known pasuk in our parashah this week is the first:
Noach ish tzadik hayah bedorotav.
Noach was a righteous man in his generation.
We are familiarized with the discussion about why it was necessary to include the phrase “in his generation;” it would have been enough to say of Noah that he was a just man.
Let's remember two interpretations: the first one says that Noah is singled out as fair in comparison to his corrupt generation. Had he lived in the generations of our patriarchs, he would not have stood out as righteous.
Another vision of Noach tells us that it is much more difficult to be just in a generation of corrupt people, since corruption and deviating from the right path is highly contagious.
According to an interesting Midrash on Parashat Bereshit, not only Adam and Chavah tasted the forbidden fruit. We are told that all the animals disobeyed the divine order... except one: an animal called Chol (the Phoenix bird) that remained firm in its convictions and, adds the Midrash, still lives in the Gan Eden (Bereshit Rabbah).
I imagine the phoenix looking at how its companions were being expelled from Gan Eden, remaining isolated from all creation, and thinking: “Should I stay here by myself with my principles or should I accompany the current in its corruption?”
However, it didn't have much time to think. A sword of fire was placed at the gate of the Gan Eden to prevent outsiders from re-entering, says the Torah. In my humble opinion, also to prevent the insider from being tempted to come out.
Noach could also have been carried away by that generation. “What do I do?” he must have thought. “Do I alone get into this ark with my family and my integrity or do I join them?” It is easy to be fooled when one sees that the corrupt prosper and have a reputation.
Noach was alone. And he felt alone.
However, he chose to preserve the best capital that the Lord had given him: his own integrity. That's what makes him a virtuous person. The famous Joze of Lublin, an 18th-century Jewish seer, was once asked: “If one has a small loaf whole and a huge loaf bitten off... which one should he say HaMotzi (blessing over bread) about?” And Joze replied: “About the little one, because it is whole” (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 168, 1).
Because integrity is better than greatness.
Most commentators agree that Noach took the flood very selfishly. It is told in the Zohar that when Noah came out of the ark and saw the world in ruins, he began to cry and implore God: “Sovereign of the world! Don't they call you pious? You should have had mercy on your creatures!”
The Kadosh Baruch Hu told him: “Now you tell me? Why didn't you do it when I warned you that I would bring the flood!? Surely, knowing that you were safe in the ark, it did not occur to you to think about the dire fate of the world...” (Midrash HaNeelam, Noah).
Noach could have announced with a megaphone that the world was going to be destroyed. However, he didn’t. During all those years before the flood, Noach slept peacefully. He stayed building the ark, closed in on himself and without caring about the fate of that generation.
When one considers the manner in which Noah was saved from the flood, one cannot help but wonder if this was really a salvation or a test. He probably didn't pass the test. This is even clearer when, at the end of the flood, the Torah story tells us that the first thing he does is plant a vine and get drunk. He does not build a house, a school for his descendants, but gets drunk. Not the best way to restart humanity.
Perhaps for this reason, in the same parashah we find the story of the Tower of Babel. The one in which humanity forgot to find that the construction of a society had to do with respect for human life and care for Creation. Instead, they wanted to become like gods.
But I want to share an interpretation of the modern commentator Yeshayahu Leibovitz on this:
“I understand that the decree of dispersion (of that generation) was not a punishment, but rather an amendment in favor of humanity. The fundamental message of the Tower of Babel section has nothing to do with the construction of the tower itself. Rather it has to do with what it says at the beginning of the section: That the whole earth—the renewed post-diluvian humanity—possessed “one language and similar words” (Bereshit 11, 1). After the failure in the construction of the tower, different languages and, therefore, different words emerged. I understand that the basis of the sin of the “Generation of Division” consists of having wanted to artificially concentrate all its members in order to sustain the reality of “a single language and similar words”, something that in modern terms we usually call ‘Totalitarianism.’”
Prof. Leibovitz describes a society where the individual has no place, but is instead a prisoner of an egoism similar to that of Noach. The target controls his life, just as Noach was overwhelmed by the construction of the Ark and isolated himself from the rest of humanity. A society where principles are forgotten and who focuses on vain and selfish goals cannot prosper either individually or as a whole.
May we, on this Shabbat Noach, reflect about what our priorities are in our lives, in face of our world. Above all, let’s hope that we can make our bond with those around us prevail in the construction of a more diverse and open society to work together with our differences.
Rabbi Gustavo Geier