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    Noah: A profile

    17th century depiction of Noah with the plans for the ark

    17th century depiction of Noah with the plans for the ark

    The sages could not quite make up their minds about Noah.

    Every great figure has detractors as well as admirers. That’s how it was with Noah too – Rashi says, yesh dor’shim lish’vach: some praised him; yesh dor’shim lig’nai: some criticised him.

    The truth is that Noah was a complex character with virtues and failings all intertwined.

    His virtues were summed up in is name, No’ach, which means rest, for he eased the lot of his fellow human beings by inventing the plough, and he led mankind out of the turbulent period of the flood to re-establish civilisation on stable foundations.

    In a generation that was wicked and violent, Noah was righteous and pious. No wonder he had his admirers.

    But there were also grounds for severe criticism of the man, his character and deeds.

    He did not have enough faith, either in God or in himself. It is said that he did not marry until very late because he foresaw the flood, and feared his family would perish.

    He built the Ark, but he was not completely confident that it would save him and entered it only when the waters reached his ankles.

    He did not try hard enough to save his generation. Yes, he warned his contemporaries that destruction was ahead, but he did not struggle and strive for them, sacrificing his energies and nerves in the task of bringing them to repentance.

    Contrast Abraham, who wrestled with God to save Sodom and Gomorrah, and Moses, who said to God, “Forgive the people: but if You do not forgive them, then blot me out of Your book”.

    Noah’s righteousness, say the sages, was only against the background of his own generation. In a better age, he would have been a mediocrity; as the Torah says; “Noah was a righteous man, perfect in his generation”.

    (Samson Raphael Hirsch, however, comes to Noah’s defence. Such a struggle to maintain his piety and standards must, he says, have had a weakening effect on him. Further, in such times, even a lesser degree of righteousness impresses God more than a greater amount in better times.)

    Tragically, Noah was not completely successful in transmitting his values to his children, even though he was able to save them physically from destruction in the deluge.

    One son, Shem (“name”), was endowed with mental grasp; Japhet (“beauty”) was gifted with imagination; but Ham (“heat”) was a man of sensual brutality who sexually abused his father or possibly castrated him.

    (But coming to Noah’s defence again we should not forget that for all Noah’s failure with Ham, the qualities of Shem and Japhet should not be minimised, and in many ways it is what they represent and achieved that laid the foundations for the Jewish contribution to civilisation.)

    History must not disregard Noah’s weaknesses and failings, but neither should it judge him too harshly.

    Those especially who live in a comfortable generation should not be too hasty to condemn him: ”There, but for the grace of God, go I”, runs the saying. And Hillel cautions, “Do not judge your fellow until you stand in his place” (Avot 2:5).

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