Parashat Noach: Good Enough To Do The Job
Biblical Noah is best known for his zoological prowess. The story of his massive boat with two of every animal is one of the easiest stories to relay to children, and thus has been imprinted on the minds of young people for centuries. It is also indicative of a popular flood narrative, a myth common to the Ancient Near East, most notably similar to the Epic of Gilgamesh, which plays on nearly identical themes to convey a similar theology about holy beings ending creation with a flood, giving civilizations the chance to process their relationship with the dangers of the natural world.
Perhaps most compelling, though, from the Noah narrative is the description of his selection as God’s emissary for the future of humanity. Parashat Noach begins with God’s frustration with the evil that has become rampant in the early phases of humanity. God regrets making the earth as it is, and chooses to scrap the project, starting over. But God doesn’t want to start completely from scratch; instead, God chooses Noah and his family as the representatives of the new generation, in order to preserve both themselves and the animals for the next go-around.
One of the most common elements of Biblical commentary and interpretation is the struggle with obvious plot holes or strange phrases that need further explication. I like to think of these as plot holes on the road to biblical understanding, holes that scholars throughout the ages have tried to fill with ink in order to smooth out the theological implications and the spiritual impacts of their presence. One of the most ambiguous, and therefore most intriguing such challenges is found in Genesis 6:9, the very first verse of the Torah portion. We read “This is the line of Noah...Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation.” On the surface, it makes sense that Noah would be an excellent pick for God’s chosen one; righteousness, it would seem, is a reasonable qualification for being the individual chosen to repopulate the earth after total destruction. But it is the second part of the verse that causes scholars to scramble; why would the text double down on Noah’s claim of righteousness by saying he was “blameless in his generation?” Is this a positive indication of Noah’s character, that he is a good person amidst a world of evil? Or is this an indication that Noah was decent when compared to a generation full of evil, but fell short when compared to “real” holiness of later generations?
Rashi, the 11th century French biblical commentator, argued both sides of this discussion. He wrote, “Some of our Rabbis explain it to his credit: he was righteous even in his generation; it follows that had he lived in a generation of righteous people he would have been even more righteous owing to the force of good example. Others, however, explain it to his discredit: in comparison with his own generation he was accounted righteous, but had he lived in the generation of Abraham he would have been accounted as of no importance.” He exemplifies this ancient question: should Noah be judged differently because he comes from a generation of sinners? Is Noah’s righteousness better because he was good at a time when others were bad? Or is Noah’s righteousness only circumstantial, that someone else would have been picked if there was anyone better available at the time?
This calls to mind one of the most fascinating questions of human history: how do we look to our past and judge history while being understanding of the context in which people lived? The conversation centers around the notion of historical relativism. Put most bluntly, is there such a thing as objective truth for ethical debates, or does context and interpretation set the scene? Torah is no stranger to demands about our beliefs on historical relativism. Later in the book of Leviticus, we will hear a lot about the way we are to treat the slaves who reside in our house. Is this representative of Torah being thoughtful of human rights even within the context of slavery, or is this a sign that Torah is supporting a fundamentally horrifying institution, rendering it, too, evil? Can we tolerate the sins of the past by excusing the lack of cultural understanding that we now know today, or are we beholden to judging all of human history with the same set of truths that we hold as infallible today? The challenge with this question, of course, is that we know our essential truths in our core because they are, after all, essential truths. We wouldn’t be able to call them that if there was ambiguity or if there was active debate. But what do we do when we try to retroactively hold our ancestors accountable for the truths we have discovered along the way, even if we believe them to be truths we should have known all along?
The best example of this debate outside of Torah is our understandings of the founding fathers of America. The narrative of American exceptionalism stems from this collection of sages, wise at a time when tyranny and oppression seemed to be everywhere. They gave us such ideals as “Liberty and justice for all,” the beauty of “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” But in the very beauty of this quote is also the struggle. The quote clearly says men. The quote, at the time when it was written, clearly meant white men. And so we are left to wonder if the glory of the quote is diminished in our implementation of it today because of the holes that were left when it was written. Americans today have to confront a national rhetoric that, for centuries, has been (at least in theory) a calling card for equality and valor, while also accepting the parts of the story that were just as damaging as they were empowering.
History echoes with countless examples of the way in which we fail to stake a claim as to how we feel about historical relativism. We can’t decide if we think it is ok to separate the art from the artist, to draw the lessons of value from a time when oppression and hatred ran in the background. How many of the men who have shaped our society were in positions of power because they abused women and minorities along the way? How many stories that we tell have excellent morals embedded with deeply flawed characters? Can we, as a society, stomach the notion that we can learn something beautiful from a place that is ugly, or can we claim holiness in a place where profanity also existed?
The Torah does not give us a clear answer, although it does point us in the right direction. Noah’s introduction at the beginning of the parashah that carries his name points us to the notion that he is righteous within a certain context. Whether that is to his benefit or to his detriment, it does not say. We see evidence that he fails to speak up on behalf of the rest of humanity; he does not try to save the people God has doomed as Abraham does later in the book. He does not put the needs of others ahead of his own saving. But, at the same token, we learn an important lesson about the nature of Noah’s kindness. The crime of which humanity is convicted by God is that, “God saw how great was humanity’s wickedness on earth, and how every plan devised by their mind was nothing but evil all the time.” (Genesis 6:5) And so, when looked at in this context, Noah’s task becomes quite beautiful: Noah is tasked with rescuing all the animals, with putting the needs of other living things in equal stake with his own. In essence, God is prescribing the antidote for humanity’s ills through the task by which humanity is saved, and in so doing, Noah helps to redeem the sins of humanity.
Noah is not perfect. Before the narrative is done, he will engage in extreme drunkenness and his offspring will participate in all kinds of misdeeds. But Noah is good enough for the moment. Noah has the tools to rise to the occasion, to do what needs to be done in order to give humanity and the animals on earth a chance. Noah was righteous in his time; he didn’t need to be righteous in any other time but his own.
We, as readers, get the chance to learn something of ourselves in this portrayal of Noah. So often, we hold our heroes on a pedestal, a lofty place that even they themselves cannot truly achieve. How can we, “mere mortals” ever hope to aspire to the kinds of greatness done not by the real people themselves, but the version that we have constructed in our heads? And do we really need perfection from our leaders and our role models, or can we settle for the level of decency that gets the job done, that inspires sanctity not only despite the profanity, but sometimes even because of the human imperfection that made it possible in the first place? What this story helps to teach is that we can aspire to our own levels of greatness while being aware of our limitations; that our task is not to be perfect, not be transcendent, but to be good enough, strong enough, righteous enough to rise to the moment that is presented, and to meet the tasks that need to be done with the talent and the gifts we have to work with.