Parshas Noach: When Obedience is Not Enough

In this week’s parsha, Parshas Noach, we learn of the famous deluge that inundated the world, washing all life away, destroying the top layer of the earth itself, save for Noach, his wife Naama, Shem, Cham, Yafes and their wives, as well as the animals they took with them into the Ark (and the fish).  Due to the corruption of mankind upon the earth, ten generations after Adam, Noach and his progeny were to rebuild and start the world anew.

And yet, when the flood waters subside, and we expect Noach and his family to emerge from the Ark, something very different occurs.  Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks z’l writes, “The rain comes; the earth is flooded; Noah and those with him are the sole survivors.  The rain ceases and the water abates.

“We expect to read that Noah emerges from the Ark.  Instead, the narrative slows down and for fourteen verses almost nothing happens.  The water recedes.  The ark comes to rest.  Noah opens a window and sends out a raven.  Then he sends out a dove.  He waits seven days and sends it out again.  It returns with an olive leaf.  Another seven days pass.  He sends the dove a third time.  This time it does not return, but Noah still does not step out onto dry land.  Eventually, G-d Himself says, ‘Come out of the Ark.’  Only then – in response to the Divine directive – does Noah exit the Ark…”  The lesson is unmistakable.  “When it comes to rebuilding a shattered world, you do not wait for permission” (Covenant & Conversation, Genesis, p.45).

A number of years ago, I noticed something simply astonishing in the sedra of Noach.  Noach, whose name itself means ‘passivity’ or ‘at rest’, does not speak.  Look through the entire sedra, from the very first pasuk (Bereishis 6:9), through almost the very end of the Noach narrative.  Noach is silent.  Passive. At rest.  Noach does not talk.  [Noach does speak, but only at the very end of the sedra, when he has more of a nevuah than active speech which he would have initiated of his own free will and volition.  See Bereishis 9:25-27 for Noach’s nevuah.]

Adam, the first man and first sinner, speaks to G-d.  Kayin, the first murderer, speaks to G-d.  Avraham Avinu and Moshe Rabbeinu spend their entire careers speaking to G-d; bargaining, pleading, praying, negotiating, thanking and praising.  Bilaam, whose last name is rasha, speaks to G-d.  It is highly unusual that the Torah portrays the life of a major Biblical personality with such detail – as it does of Noach and the deluge – and said personality does not talk.  Even the primordial serpent and Bilaam’s donkey both speak!  

In a Torah of action, Noach is the outlier, the exception, the man who is faulted for his silence.   Rabbi Lord J. Sacks continues, “Noah is the paradigm of Biblical obedience.  He does as he is commanded.  What his story tells us is that obedience is not enough (Italics in the original).  This is an extraordinary phenomenon.  It is reasonable to assume that in the life of faith, obedience is the highest virtue.  (And yet,) in Judaism, it is not.  One of the strangest features of biblical Hebrew is that – despite the fact that the Torah contains 613 commands – there is no word for ‘obey.’  Instead the verb the Torah uses is shema/lishmoa, ‘to listen, hear, attend, understand, internalize, respond.’

“… In Judaism, G-d does not command blind obedience.  As the Sages teach: G-d does not deal despotically with His creatures’ (Avoda Zara 3a).  If He sought no more than mindless submission to the divine will, He would have created robots, machines, or genetically programmed people who respond automatically to commands… G-d wants us to be mature, deliberative, to do His will because we understand or because we trust Him when we do not understand.  He seeks from us something other and greater than obedience, namely responsibility

“Noah’s end – drunk, disheveled, an embarrassment to his children – eloquently tells us that if you save yourself while doing nothing to save the world, you do not even save yourself.  Noah, so the narrative seems to suggest, could not live with the guilt of survival… When it comes to rebuilding the ruins of catastrophe, you do not wait for permission.  You take the risk and walk ahead.  Faith is more than obedience.  It is the courage to create (and when need be, re-create)” (Covenant & Conversation, Genesis, p.45-47).

While Noach was a good man, righteous in his generation, he does not merit to become the founder, father, or leader of the Umah Yisraelis.   When Avraham’s nephew was captured in battle, Avraham became involved – risking his life to save someone else.  When dusty nomadic travelers, with the dust of idolatry upon their feet, searched for water and food on a hot Middle Eastern day, Avraham ran to serve them.  When the towns of Sodom and Amorah were facing destruction, Avraham bargained with G-d.  Avraham became our father – a paradigm of action, initiative, compassion and humanity.  As for Moshe Rabbeinu, our greatest leader to ever live, he spent his entire career advocating, praying and saving the people.  

Noach was passive and at rest, Noach followed the commands of G-d, but did nothing beyond exactly what he was commanded to do.  He saved himself, but did not even attempt to save anyone else.  For this reason, he could not be Avinu, nor Rabbeinu.  

A true leader is always concerned with the well being of the klal.  

A talmid was once sleeping over at the Kamenetsky home.  He heard the phone ring at 1am, then again at 3am, then again at 5am.  In the morning, he could not contain himself and asked, “Doesn’t the Rosh Yeshiva (HaRav Shmuel Kamenetsky shlita) ever take the phone off the hook?”  “No,” said Rav Shmuel.  He explained that he had learned from his father, Rav Yaakov zt’l, that one must always be available to a Yid in need.  “I can’t always help them, but at least I can listen, and see if there’s something I can do.”  After thinking a moment, Rav Shmuel added that there was one time he remembered taking his phone off the hook.  A caller had called every half hour straight through the night and at a certain point he apologized, but explained he needed to take the phone off the hook because his wife wasn’t able to sleep (Mishpacha Jr., Issue 931, p.10).

In a world of corruption, Noach was a good man, and for this, he merited salvation.  But a true leader carries the klal with him, and advocates for others in their time of need.  And so, it is at the end of parshas Noach, that we meet Avraham Avinu – the founder of our nation, a leader and advocate for all.  May we learn from his ways and emulate his path.  

בברכת בשורות טובות ושבת שלום,


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