This is the story of Noah: Noah was a man of tzaddik; he was blameless in his generations; Noah walked with God. (Genesis/Bereishit 6:9)
tzaddik = right conduct, lawfulness, innocence; a righteous person.
In the Talmud, a man is called a tzaddik if he devotes his life to Torah study and prayer. For the Chassidim in Eastern Europe, a tzaddik was a holy man so esteemed by God that he could work miracles. Some commentary reads these meanings of the word tzaddik back into Noah’s story, but since the Torah never shows Noah studying, praying, or acting like a holy miracle-worker, I think Noah is merely innocent and lawful, avoiding chamas (violence) even though everyone around him is doing it.
At the end of last week’s Torah portion, God regrets creating humankind, because of the abundant badness of the human on earth, that the shape of every idea of his heart was only bad all the time. (Genesis 6:5) (See my post last week, Bereishit: Inner Voices.)
Since Noah is the best human being available, God speaks to him at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Noach (“Noah” or “resting”).
And God said to Noah: The end of all flesh is coming before me, because violence has filled the earth on account of them, and here I am, their destroyer of the earth. Make for yourself a tevah of gofer wood. (Genesis 6:13-14)
tevah = floating vessel, “ark”. (A different word from aron = chest, “ark”, where Moses stores the tablets of the Torah.)
gofer = ? (This is the only occurrence of the word in the whole Hebrew bible, and its meaning is unknown.)
God gives Noah detailed instructions on how to build the tevah, explains that It will address the problem of human violence by wiping away everything ion earth (except the tevah) with a vast flood, and tells Noah to collect what will go inside the tevah: a pair of every kind of animal; Noah and his wife, sons, and daughters-in-law; and food for everybody.
And Noah did so; everything that God commanded him, thus he did. Then God said to Noah: Enter, you and all your household, into the tevah, because in you I have seen tzaddik before Me in this generation. (Genesis 6:22-7:1)
It sounds as if God approves of Noah’s passive obedience. Yet commentators through the ages have wondered why Noah does not try to talk God out of the Flood, the way Abraham tries to talk God out of destroying Sodom and Gomorrah by saying perhaps there are some innocent people among the wicked.
Most of the commentary I have read falls into two camps. One camp considers Noah either a failed prophet (because he did not warn anyone to repent) or a failed tzaddik in the Chassidic sense (because he did not ask God to decree a different fate for the world). The other camp argues that God must have asked Noah to prophesy in an unrecorded conversation, and Noah must have done his best, while building the tevah, to warn people about the flood and urge them to repent before it was too late.
But the commentary that alarms me the most comes from the 19th-century Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch. Hirsch wrote that performing God’s will is what matters; acting on the basis of your own judgment is of secondary and uncertain importance. So although Noah could have done other things, he was correct in doing exactly what God commanded, and no more.
I would say that if God only wants humans to do as they are told, God had no reason to plant the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden in the first place. Yet God not only places the Tree, but points it out to Adam by warning him not to eat from it. Then when Adam obediently avoids it, God creates Eve and the talking snake, so the humans finally eat. The taste of knowledge of good and bad gives humans have the ability to form opinions, and choose between them. Though we usually act out of habit and instinct, we have the ability to make new and creative choices.
Some rabbis have argued that the most desirable outcome is when a human deliberately chooses to do exactly what God wants. But sometimes there is a difference in the Torah between what God says and what God wants. On several occasions God “tests” (nasah) people to see what they will choose to do. For example, God tests Abraham by telling him to sacrifice his son Isaac as a burnt offering—but when Abraham binds his son on an altar and raises his knife, God intervenes to save Isaac’s life. It was only a test, and in a real test you do not tell the subject everything you want.
So when God tells Noah to build and supply the tevah before the flood wipes out the earth, is that really all God wants Noah to do? Or is God testing him, to see whether Noah will warn people to repent, or even propose a different solution to God?
Suppose Hirsch is right, and God only wants us to choose to follow explicit directions. That not only makes the relationship between humans and God uninteresting, it also leaves us stranded when we have to make independent decisions that are not explicitly covered by the 613 rules in the Torah. The tradition of Jewish oral law tries to fill the gap, but it still cannot cover everything. Human beings often find themselves in situations where they need to figure out the best course of action for themselves.
Thank God! I believe we humans shine when we discover, or invent, good ideas that nobody considered before. Choosing to follow God’s orders is a virtue of sorts. But we are blessed with the ability to rise above Noah’s level of virtue, and improve the world in ways the Torah never envisioned. Depending on how you define “God”, this might be what God really wants.
In my own lifetime, I have seen great progress in granting status, rights, and respect to people in groups that were subjugated for millennia, including women, people outside the traditional heterosexual model, and outsiders from different ethnic groups and countries. We still have farther to go, and some parts of the world lag far behind, but we have created a good path. The Torah merely assumes these groups will always be inferior, and offers a few paltry laws to protect the members of some groups within their inferior status. Thanks to our God-given abilities, humans are now working on a better vision.
The Torah also promotes war, while alluding to a distant future when war will disappear because everyone will worship the same god. But we can do better than that, thanks to our taste for knowing good from bad, our ability to transcend our habits and instincts and make choices, our creative minds, and our power to rise above ourselves to speak as prophets or tzaddikim. Someday humans may achieve an era of peace better than the one imagined in the Bible!
May it be God’s will … but most of all, may it become our will.