This week, we read the story of Noah and the ark he built. It is a story we know well; a familiar tale about a man referred to as ish tzaddik, a “righteous man” considered “blameless in his generation.” Noah walked with God, but was he truly deserving of this distinction?
Traditional opinions about Noah are mixed. On the one hand Noah is seen as a truly righteous man. As Nachmanides, a 13th century commentator notes: “[Noah was] neither a person of violence, nor a person who cheated or lied; he did not participate in the cults of astrology, enchantment, and soothsaying, nor did he worship idols.”
Furthermore, he seemed to be successful at all that he attempted. Legend tells us that he invented the working tools that he needed to build the ark. He also is credited with the invention of the plow — a necessary machine for tilling the soil after the floodwaters finally receded. Additionally, we are told that he understood the languages of all people and of all creatures — even sign language. According to our commentaries then, he was a communicator of a most extraordinary kind. There seems to be no limit to the wonders of which Noah possessed.
On the other hand, Noah is also heavily criticized. Some commentators accuse our hero of having been too obedient, too submissive, and even too selfish. They ask: did Noah ever doubt God’s intended destruction? Did he ever implore God to annul his decree? Did he ever utter a word of protest — or prayer? Did he ever try to intercede with God on behalf of the countless human beings who were already doomed but didn’t know it? Did he ever give warning to those around him of the pending destruction or help them to assure their own safety?
So, with these differing opinions, can Noah be considered an ish tzaddik?
The Hassid Elimelech of Lizensk once observed that there are two kinds of righteous persons: one is genuinely righteous; the other dresses like a righteous person in a fur coat. Each of them faces a freezing winter in a different way: one will go out and collect wood for a fire; the other will wrap himself in his fur coat. The one who collects wood lights a fire and invites others to join him. He not only warms himself but others as well. The one who makes himself cozy in his own heavy coat keeps himself warm, but does not notice that those around him are freezing. The genuinely righteous person, then, is the one who shares warmth with others.
When we review Noah’s actions, it is difficult to call Noah an ish tzaddik. It is not enough that Noah did as God commanded, especially when he remained insensitive to the sorrows of the people around him. He cannot be called a righteous man when he thought only of himself and his own safety.
Yet, although he made no speeches of protest, made no demands of God, and claimed no special privileges, he did serve as an example. It is likely that he was not the only one to hear God’s warnings, but he was the only one to act. He was the only one to turn his awareness of God into the action of following God’s commands. Noah was instructed to build an ark; so build it he did. Noah was told to gather pairs of every creature on earth; and so he did. Noah may not have asked the right questions, nor made the right demands. He may not have lived his life in the way we would expect a true leader to live. Nonetheless, he is the hero of our story.
And to be sure, we can learn something from Noah’s story. While he may not have been worthy of being called an ish tzaddik — a righteous man — he is indeed an ish — a human being, complete with human limitations and human faults. He was not perfect. Neither are we. And yet we are all worthy of “walking with God.”
(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)