May 29, 2024
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Excerpted and adapted from ‘Talks on the Parasha’ by Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz, Maggid Books (printed with permission).

Rashi’s comment on the first verse in the parsha—“Noah was a righteous man, pious in his generation” (Gen. 6:9)—is a bit puzzling: “Some interpret it to his credit…while others interpret it to his discredit.” If the verse can be interpreted to Noah’s credit, why would Rashi, echoing our sages, interpret it to his discredit?

Noah appears at the end of Parshat Bereshit as the world’s great hope. The world is rife with criminals and thieves, and only one man exists who stands out in his generation: “But Noah found favor in God’s sight” (Gen. 6:8). Even Noah’s name attests to this assessment: “This one will bring us relief (yenachamenu)” (5:29). This is a child who is born amidst great hope. But Noah—despite all the praise, and although he spoke with God and was close to Him—ultimately reaches a state in which his character is interpreted negatively.

It seems clear that this negative assessment of Noah cannot be completely negative, as it would be very difficult to claim that everything he did was bad. Rather, Noah can be seen as a negative character when held up to the standard of Abraham. In other words, when our sages interpreted Noah negatively, it was not so much to discredit him but to emphasize Abraham’s worthiness.


As we analyze Noah’s narrative arc, familiar elements begin to arise that evoke the narratives of other characters throughout Tanach. Noah starts out as a righteous and pious man, but the final episode of his narrative represents a radical departure from this image. To be sure, Noah is not entirely at fault in the ugly incident described in Chapter 9, but some of the blame can certainly be placed on Noah and his drunkenness.

The character that immediately comes to mind when we read of Noah’s fall from piety is Lot. Lot comes from a good family—he is Abraham’s nephew—but his fall is similarly tragic. Lot did not personally commit any egregious sins; because of this it is difficult to blame him directly for the events that transpired as a result of his actions. However, the Torah conveys an air of unpleasantness surrounding Lot’s poor decisions, and it is clear that our sages’ variously negative assessment of Lot is merely an extension of a motif that already exists in the text.

There are additional points of resemblance between Noah and Lot. In both cases, their children were involved; both were enticed by wine, and their respective falls came about as a result of intoxication; and both were seemingly driven to drink in the wake of extraordinarily traumatic events. Noah and Lot are both survivors of bygone worlds, solitary individuals remaining from whole societies that disappeared in the blink of an eye. Everything that surrounded them is suddenly gone, and they are left isolated within themselves. Apparently, neither Noah nor Lot can bear the terrible loneliness, the feeling of being one of the only people left in the world. It should not be surprising that both of them, wallowing in loneliness, begin to drink.

The loneliness of Noah and Lot is a natural result of separation from the world. In fact, this is essentially the same loneliness that the tzaddik experiences, as one can only become a tzaddik if he is capable of being alone, able to countenance endless loneliness. A tzaddik must be willing to be like Abraham, of whom Ezekiel says, “Abraham was singular” (Ezek. 33:24).

Abraham wanted to change the world. But the moment he leaves his father’s house, he also decides to be singular and alone, to be “Abram the Hebrew (HaIvri)” (Gen. 14:13)—that is, in a position where “the whole world stands on one side (ever) and he stands on the other side” (Genesis Rabba 42:8).1 Abraham’s willingness to accept the loneliness of a tzaddik’s task is part of what makes him the perfect tzaddik. Conversely, a person can be a truly exalted personality, but as long as he cannot exist without a community of supporters, he cannot be a true tzaddik.

In the book of Ezekiel, Daniel and Job appear together with Noah in the same verse (14:14). What the three have in common is that each of them had to begin his course by himself, all alone and without any support from others. An individual who follows such a path undertakes to be alone even where good company is available. He cannot truly connect with his father or mother, his brothers or sisters, or anyone else. Part of his essence is to be alone.

The tzaddik faces loneliness even when he is surrounded by his followers. Rabbi Nachman of Breslov (in a preface to Likkutei Moharan II) comments on the notion of “Abraham was singular” that the tzaddik, even when he is surrounded by good people, must be ready for the loneliness and singularity that Noah and Abraham experienced.

It is interesting to note that even people who lived in generations that, seemingly, were not at all sinful or degenerate still express the loneliness of one who longs to transcend his society. Take, for example, the book of Psalms. King David lives in neither a physical nor a cultural wilderness. Nor does he live in a place where everyone is wicked. But if we turn to Chapter 69, we see that he speaks of terrible loneliness—everyone is mocking him, everyone is laughing. I imagine that a person in David’s situation today, thirsting for spiritual growth, would be admonished by his peers, “There is a limit to the fear of God. Do you think you are better than the local rabbi? Do you think you are better than your friends? Know your place. Why do you have to be better than everyone else?”

This is what creates the sense of loneliness, and this is what David is complaining about. It is not about persecution but about a feeling of distance from his immediate circle or society. Even a fundamentally good society is not always interested in having a distinctive, exalted individual in its midst – even if that individual represents Godliness and holiness.

The flood in every generation

The problem of the flood exists not just in the time of Noah. To be sure, God promised that there would never again be such a flood of water, but as any good lawyer would point out, He never promised to desist from other floods. God’s promise is, in this respect, a carefully-termed legal clause, complete with limitations.

In fact, there is a flood in almost every generation. In some generations, the “flood” is physical; it may be a wildfire, a tsunami, an earthquake, or a volcanic eruption. In other generations, the flood is not physical but spiritual. Just as a physical flood may involve water falling down from heaven or surging up from the sea, in a spiritual flood the intellectuals inundate us with anti-religious messages from above, and from below, the masses initiate a deluge of dissatisfaction with the religious experience.

Hence, the need arises to build an ark. For this reason, people gather together and safeguard themselves; they build for themselves walls so as not to drown in the ocean of water. On the other hand, the story of Noah should remind us that even someone who is saved from the flood can end up like a drunkard, leading an insular life even in spiritual matters; and then the world will have to wait another ten generations until someone comes along to save it.

Today, our modern “arks” are sometimes much larger than that of Noah. The ark may be the size of a neighborhood or even a whole city—containing within it countless tzaddikim, perhaps one Canaan, one Cham, and even one Shem with his house of study. Beyond that, as far as the ark’s inhabitants are concerned, no other world exists. This contemporary spiritual isolation is a problem that requires attention.

Noah’s narrative begins with “Noah found favor” and ends on a note of defeat—he is an old and lonely man, with nothing to show for his life’s achievements and struggles. Ultimately, the world’s “second draft” ends in failure, just as the “first draft” did. God finished creating the world and beheld that “it was very good” (Gen. 1:31), but shortly thereafter Parshat Bereshit concludes, “and He grieved in his heart” (6:6).

Only later on comes the story of Abraham, the man who is capable of being entirely alone, and yet—in spite of everything—succeeds in his life’s goal of fitting the entire world into his ark.

“Talks on the Parasha” is Rabbi Steinsaltz’s latest publication. It is available online and at local Jewish bookstores everywhere. It is published by Maggid Books.

By Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz

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