What a difference a paragraph can make. As this week’s portion opens, things have subtly changed. The Divine name is now Elo-him, the aspect of justice. In addition, Noach is no longer the one who “found favor in the eyes of G-d.” The Torah delivers him a backhanded compliment, saying that he was “perfect in his generation; Noach walked with G-d (6:9).” The implication is that had Noach lived in some other generation, he would likely not have stood out as righteous in comparison with the immorality surrounding him. So Hashem gives him a chance to prove himself by taking on the mantle of trying to restore the faith and ethics of the degenerates surrounding him, right? Nope.
Noach is mute.
To be fair, his silence was the natural antidote to the societal breakdown surrounding him. According to Chazal (our blessed sages), the declining behavior of the population had spiraled out of control, starting with immorality and crimes which were committed in private, but ending with uncontrolled and unguarded activities which knew no limitations. On one level, therefore, Noach was dispatched to teach by example; one’s actions speak louder than their words, correct?
In a fascinating take on the story, several commentators imply that it was Noach’s reticence which was the cause of his being commanded to build, populate, and live in the ark—as a punishment. 6:14 says that Noach should “make [the ark] for yourself.” The penalty for not being a vocal prophet was the requirement to live on a boat with his family at least two of every animal for the better part of a year. The Zohar picks up the theme with the verse from Isaiah 54:9, found in our Haftarah, saying, “For like the waters of Noach shall this be to me…,” suggesting that the Flood was actually Noach’s fault for keeping his mouth shut!
But even so, the first known shipwright in the world is imperfect. Just when he should have learned his lesson, he gets back on dry land, plants a vineyard, gets drunk, and debases himself. Ironically, Noach’s descendants do have a takeaway from the story, however misguided. While their folly is trying to build a tower to the heavens for their own self-aggrandizement, they do make one tremendous improvement. While the generation of the Flood sinned against G-d and each other, the residents of Babel worked collectively toward a common goal—even though it resulted in their dispersal around the world—precisely what they hoped to avoid.
Perhaps we’re looking too hard at the story to find a perfect hero. The first generation fell out of favor when their innocence was confused with their ignorance. In the 10th, Noach is certainly a step in the right direction, but his fate reminds us that it’s not words or deeds that matter; it’s making your words and deeds be the best they can be. 10 more generations hence (in Torah time), the two will finally come together. Next week, we meet Abraham.
Shabbat Shalom, and a Good Month!
Rabbi/Hazzan David B. Sislen