Noah the Righteous, Noah the Ordinary
Updated: Jul 29
by Rabbi Pam on Parshat Noah at Congregation B’nai Emunah
On the other hand, we do not really know whether the stories in the Torah are true, but we can learn from the stories nevertheless because, as Rabbi Donniel Hartman says, the Torah is not a Book of Science; it is a Book of Values. We can learn about the values that are depicted in the Torah and in the midrash (commentary) regardless of whether the underlying story actually took place.
As we know, this week’s Torah portion includes the story of Noah and the ark and the rainbow. It also includes the Tower of Babel and a description of the ten generations between Noah and Abraham. On the surface, this is a Torah portion that is easy to understand. God tells Noah that the world is going to be destroyed. God asks Noah to build an ark. Noah builds an ark. The animals enter the ark. Noah and his family enter the ark. And then it rains for 40 days.
I have a friend who has four generations in his family and all four generations recently had dinner together, including a newborn baby and the baby’s parents, grandparents and a great grandparent. Based on our present life span, we can get together with four generations in the same family, but in this week’s Torah Portion, there is a genealogy of ten generations and there is midrash (commentary) that says that people who were nine or ten generations apart were all alive during a certain period of time. We don’t know if that actually happened, but based on the life span of some of the people who are mentioned in this week’s Torah portion, it certainly seems possible.
The ark continues to float on the flood waters for an additional 150 days and, eventually, the ark rests on a mountaintop. Shortly thereafter, Noah opens the door of the ark and lets out the people and the animals. Later on, God brings a rainbow and makes a covenant with all of humanity that the world will never again be destroyed.
Then there is the story of the Tower of Babel. People all spoke one language. They wanted to make a tower to the sky or to heaven in order to make a name for themselves, but God babbled their language and caused the people to not be able to understand one another, so they could not go on building the Tower.
After the story of the Tower of Babel, the Torah enumerates the lineage of Noah and the generations between Noah and Abraham. According to the Torah, Noah had three sons, Shem, Ham and Japeth. The Jewish people are considered to be among the descendants of Shem. In Hebrew, we call ourselves Shemim. In English, Semites. Of course, we all know this term from the negative term anti-Semite, but the fact is that being a Semite is a great positive, because it means that we have received the benefit of the teachings of Noah’s eldest son Shem.
According to the Talmud, Shem was still alive at the time when Abraham was alive even though they were nine generations apart. According to the Talmud, not only were Shem and Abraham both alive during years, but Shem was actually one of Abraham’s teachers. As part of anchoring the story in the reality of that age, the Talmud includes a brief narrative of a conversation between Shem and Eliezer who was a servant of Abraham.
According to Rabbi Chana ben Bizna, Eliezer asked Shem, “What was it like for you [in the ark]?”
Shem replied, “We had so much trouble in the ark. The animals that usually feed by day, we fed by day. And those which normally feed at night, we fed by night. But my father did not know what was the food of the chameleon. One day, he was sitting and cutting up a pomegranate, when a worm dropped out of [the pomegranate], which [the chameleon] ate. From then on, [my father] mashed up bran for the [chameleon], and when [the bran] became [full of worms], the chameleon ate it.”
According to Rabbi Chana ben Bizna, Shem also said that his father did not know what to feed the phoenix and the phoenix did not ask for food because he did not want to bother Noah. We all know what that led to….
These stories from the Talmud appear to describe Noah as a very caring man, a man who interacted with animals and could communicate with animals.
This week’s Torah Portion opens with the words, “Eileh toldot Noach, Noach ish tzadik tamim haya b’dorotav.” “These are the generations of Noah. Noah was a righteous man, innocent in his generation.” According to Midrash Rabbah, Noah spent 120 years warning people that he had been told that if they did not mend their ways, there would be a flood that would wipe out the world. Based on that midrash, it sounds like Noah tried to make a difference in the world around him by warning people about the impending flood. Unfortunately, however, people did not listen to Noah, so his caring did not stop the flood.
What does it mean that Noah was a righteous man, innocent in his generation? Perhaps it means that Noah was righteous in that he tried to make a difference among the people of his generation and he was innocent in that he did not cause their destruction; he just could not stop it.
Perhaps Noah was also righteous in that he saved many species of animals by feeding and caring for them during the flood.
Perhaps Noah was also righteous in the sense that he lived at a time when people around him were corrupt, but he did not allow himself to become corrupted under their influence. Perhaps it was Noah’s ability to hold his own when there was corruption all around that led the Torah to note that Noah was righteous.There is actually a machloket – a debate or disputation – among the rabbis as to whether we should consider Noah to be righteous because he did not do more to try to save humanity before the flood. According to Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichiv, there are two kinds of tzadikim — two kinds of righteous people. There are righteous people who are aware of their own righteousness, and there are righteous people who are not aware of their own righteous. Others may see such people as righteous, but they see themselves as ordinary.
According to Reb Levi Yitzhak, Noah was a righteous man who not did understand just how righteous he was, and because Noah did not understand how righteous he was, he was not able to believe in himself sufficiently to arrive at a more successful method for helping to save others. Reb Levi Yitzhak pointed out that had Noah truly understood how righteous he himself was, he might have had the courage and the inspiration to create a school to teach others to become righteous.
According to the Talmud, Noah and his son Shem was still alive when Abraham was born, but they died before Abraham left his homeland for the land of Canaan, which later became known as Israel.According to this teaching, Noah’s son Shem was one of Abraham’s teachers.The sages say that Abraham and Shem had the same spiritual realization, but Shem did not know how to transmit that realization to his generation, whereas Abraham did know how to transmit it to those in his generation. We are Semites because we are considered to be in lineage of the great Shem who saw his father’s caring for the animals and helped to mold the character of his great-great-great-great-great grandson Abraham. To be Jewish means not only to be a moral person and a caring person, but also to be able to transmit morality and caring to others.
We are called the people of the Book because we adhere to the teachings of this Book [the Torah] that we still write on parchment and roll on beautiful handles. The Torah tells us stories that may be myth or may be legend or may be related to events that actually happened, but regardless of whether these events actually happened, the telling of these events are interlaced with righteousness and caring. We are not free to just live our lives, we must also make a difference for those around us. It is not enough to give warnings; it is incumbent upon us to give food and clothing and ideas and comfort whether by giving charity or giving of our time.
We may not be able to eradicate hunger, but we can help to feed the hungry. We may not be able to turn society toward what we believe to be moral and righteous, but we can live our lives in a way that helps us to make a difference in the lives of others and to be living examples of the values that we hold dear. These are not just Jewish values. They are human values and because they are human values, they are always in style, always relevant from generation to generation.
Today is L’Dor V’Dor Shabbat. As we know, l’dor v’dor means from generation to generation. Judaism evolves in each generation and it is incumbent upon each generation to evolve in ways that are relevant to our lives today. We can never finish the task of evolving Judaism because Judaism continues to evolve in order to remain relevant to each new generation.
Rabbi Tarfon summed it up like this: He said, “lo alecha hamlacha ligmor v’lo ata ben chorin l’hibatel mimenu.” “You are not required to complete the task, but neither are your free to walk away from it.”
 The story of Shem and the chameleon as told by Rabbi Chana ben
Bizna is recorded in the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin 108b.
Rabbah on Genesis 30:8
teaching is attributed to Rabbi Nissan Mindel of Chabad.