Criticizing Noah

Rashi’s comment on the first verse in the parshah – “Noah was a righteous man, pious in his generation”1 – 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 Bereishit 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 G‑d’s sight.”2 Even Noah’s name attests to this assessment: “This one will bring us relief (yenachamenu).”3 This is a child who is born amidst great hope. But Noah – despite all the praise, and although he spoke with G‑d 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.”4

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)”5 – that is, in a position where “the whole world stands on one side (ever) and he stands on the other side.”6 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.7 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 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 experienced8.

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 G‑d. 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 g-dliness and holiness.

Many of the prophets experienced this same loneliness as well. That Jeremiah was wretched and persecuted is understandable. He came from a small village of Priests, who presumably did not possess great wealth. When a young man without noble ancestry stood up and criticized the people, it was no wonder that they beat him and tormented him. But the same phenomenon occurs to another prophet who was seemingly born into opposite circumstances. Isaiah was King Uzziyahu’s cousin, and from the style of his book it is evident that he did not speak like a commoner but like a member of the aristocracy. He was also the only prophet whom G‑d did not have to push into accepting his mission; rather, Isaiah rushed to receive prophecy of his own accord – and yet even he says, “I did not hide my face from insult and spitting.”9

A person can follow a righteous path and be considered one “who acts charitably at all times,”10 as interpreted by our sages, “This refers to one who supports his sons and daughters.”11 One can also be a simple Jew, who plows in the plowing season, sows in the sowing season, and reaps in the reaping season, like an ordinary member of society. However, when one acts like a simple Jew, it becomes impossible to transcend this status, to ascend in holiness. There is an element of separation that is part of the essence of the tzaddik. For some, the justification for this separation is simple: I live in a hostile world, a world full of people who are totally different from me. In order to survive spiritually in such a world, it is necessary to separate from it to some extent. But even when a person lives in a world that he basically identifies with, a world that is populated by good, decent people, there, too, he must take care to incorporate an element of separation into his lifestyle and persona.

As we have stated, part of this problem is societal. Society does not like it when someone deviates from the norm – even if this deviation improves the society. It takes people a long time to accept someone who is better than them. Furthermore, some people harbor envy, hatred, and other emotions that act as obstacles to healthy relationships. But apart from dealing with the reaction of society, one must also face oneself. When an individual chooses to ascend toward G‑d, he naturally isolates himself – not as a reaction to society but because he now devotes himself to a more sublime form of contact.

In order for an individual to follow the path of a tzaddik, he must, at least to a certain extent, be detached and devoted to G‑d, and this is something that requires a kind of total dedication. One who is constantly enmeshed in his society can reach important achievements, but to reach the path of absolute truth requires the total disregard of other people’s opinions. To be excessively cognizant of the opinions of others represents a defect in a person’s willpower.

This concept applies to people living in any generation and, as we have seen, it is reflected in the Torah in the characters of Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and many others.

“A tzaddik in peltz

Ascending in holiness is not a simple matter. It involves an intrinsic danger, to which Noah fell prey. When one is occupied with a world that is entirely holy, he lives in it alone, and he is liable to forget that there are other people that exist in the world. When a person lives, grows, and develops alone, he may come to a point where he becomes unaware of the existence of others.

What does a tzaddik do when disaster strikes the world? He can respond in several ways. When Noah builds an ark, he opts for a very specific form of response. He explains to his neighbors that he is building an ark because G‑d is about to bring retribution. Noah does not hate them, Heaven forbid. However, the essence of his work is to build a shelter in which he and his small group will be able to escape and survive, so that no matter what happens, he will not be harmed. Noah is certainly righteous and pious, but he lacks the ability to speak with his contemporaries, who consider him crazy. He has withstood 120 years of their mockery of both him and his promised flood, so it stands to reason that he is sick of these people and their jokes. When he builds an ark, he is building a shelter for himself. He is willing, perhaps, to let in another several people, but, tellingly, not enough to form a complete minyan of ten people. This fits perfectly with Noah’s persona: Such a man, by his very nature, is incapable of making a minyan. Noah did allow a few relatives to board the ark, but even in this he did not go too far: Only his wife and his children were invited.

Noah lets into the ark only the very best, only those he deems deserving of survival. All the rest he rejects, and they all perish – and yet he does let into the ark at least one son whose worthiness is highly questionable. This phenomenon is not so rare. Sometimes a clique of tzaddikim forms – four, five, eight tzaddikim who sit by themselves – and they let into their group a Ham or a Japheth, saying, mistakenly, “We are family, so we will surely get along.”

There is a well-known saying that Noah was the first example of the Yiddish expression, “a tzaddik in peltz” – a tzaddik wearing a fur coat. What is a tzaddik in peltz? When the cold weather comes, there are two ways of dealing with it. One way is to turn on a heater; the other way is to wear a fur coat. The result for the individual is the same: Whether one turns on the heater or wears a fur coat, he will be warm enough and can continue to function. The difference is only regarding others. When one turns on the heater, others will enjoy the warmth as well, whereas when one wears a fur coat, the individual becomes warm, but the others remain cold.

The problem with Noah’s ark was not that there was no need for an ark. There was certainly a need for an ark, as otherwise it would have been impossible to escape the Flood. But when Noah closed his ark so that others could not enter, that was an exceedingly problematic course of action.

Strangely and paradoxically, the very fact that Noah saved only himself and his family was what caused his family to become no more than ordinary. Noah’s descendants are ordinary people of all types and kinds. There are ten generations from Adam to Noah, and ten more from Noah to Abraham, but no notable descendants issue from Noah. Noah says, “Before I attempt to educate other people’s children, before I try to influence others, I should concern myself with my own children.” As a result of Noah’s inward-facing perspective, his children do not achieve anything of consequence. By contrast, Abraham, who constantly concerns himself with the children of others, is blessed with a litany of notable descendants. His children, for better or for worse, are distinctive characters in our tradition.

Love of G‑d – a passion?

Anyone who worships G‑d knows that there is an aspect of spiritual pleasure inherent in worship, as R. Sheshet says, “Rejoice, my soul, rejoice, my soul; for you have I read [the Torah], for you have I studied [the Mishna].”12 What could be better? We are not talking about contemptible people who derive physical benefits from their worship, but about pure spiritual pleasure.

Whether it is the act of getting up to pray or sitting down to study Torah, that moment has the potential to be the pinnacle of a person’s worldly pleasure, unconnected to any concern about one’s share in the World to Come. I was once the guest of a Jewish dairy farmer who lived on a kibbutz. He did physical labor for close to eight hours each day – and he was not a young man – and then he would bathe, have a small meal, and sit for between eight and nine hours studying Talmud. And whenever it was possible, he would study for another few hours after that. The fact that he studied bareheaded and that his home lacked a mezuzah had nothing to do with the simple pleasure he derived from connecting with G‑d through Torah study.

For the tzaddik, although solitude is one of his primary means of connection with G‑d, it can also be a form of egoism. Within this solitude is an aspect of pure selfishness: This individual is concerned only with himself. There are various levels of excessive solitude. For some, it manifests itself in the desire to eat alone. For others, it means studying Talmud alone. For still others, it is a desire to claim the entire “World to Come” for themselves. All of these cases are problematic, which raises the extremely serious question about people who engage in the service of G‑d: Could it be that the love of G‑d is a passion like all other passions? Could there be a person who is so preoccupied with his Creator that he cannot see his fellow men?

Three levels of tzaddikim

Needless to say, one does not necessarily have to isolate himself completely in order to be a tzaddik. The Torah mentions that on their journey to Canaan, Abram and Sarai took with them “the souls they had made in Charan.”13 What is the meaning of this expression – how does one “make souls”? The Midrash explains, “Abraham converted the men, and Sarah converted the women.”14 Abraham and Sarah were only two people, but they were actively involved in redeeming the world, constantly engaging with and reaching out to others.

Broadly speaking, there are three levels of tzaddikim, each of which is considered praiseworthy in G‑d’s eyes: the level of Noah, the level of Abraham, and perhaps an even higher level – that of Moses. Noah represents the tzaddik who looks after himself alone. Abraham represents the tzaddik who cannot tolerate being totally self-centered, for he feels the need to look after the world. Moses represents the highest level of righteousness. When G‑d wanted to isolate him from the People of Israel after they sinned, Moses refused. G‑d turns to him after the sin of the Golden Calf and relays to him the same message that Noah received: “You are a tzaddik; the entire generation is unworthy of surviving. You should survive, and a new world shall arise from you.” Moses responds, “Blot me out from Your book”.15 Not only does Moses assume great responsibility and concern himself with the world around him, but he says that he does not want to be the only tzaddik among all these people. If G‑d cannot forgive the entire generation, Moses will renounce even the personal relationship with G‑d that he had cultivated until that point.

The flood in every generation

The problem of the flood exists not just in the time of Noah. To be sure, G‑d 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. G‑d’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 Ham, 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. G‑d finished creating the world and beheld that “it was very good,”16 but shortly thereafter Parshat Bereishit concludes, “and He grieved in his heart.”17

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.