Noah was complex character. The Torah labels him as simple and perfect. At the same time it implies that only relative to his generation he was righteous and virtuous – there are different views taken on Noah’s righteousness, some asserting that he was indeed righteous to the extent that he would be righteous anywhere and in any time. Others take a dimmer view of Noah, asserting that only in his corrupt and evil generation he stood out as righteous, but objectively he was nothing to write home about.
We will ignore for now the periods before and during the flood, both of which illustrate elements of Noah’s character. We will instead look at the aftermath. When the waters receded the ark came to rest on solid ground. Noah proceeded to raise his periscope in order to ascertain the conditions of the world outside the ark. He first sent the raven, but when the raven failed to cooperate he sent the dove. At first the dove could not find a place to rest, and after flying around a bit the dove returned to the ark. During its second reconnaissance mission the dove brought back an olive branch, indicating that the world’s natural habitat was beginning to recover. Noah sent the dove a third time and it did not return, having found the environment sufficiently restored to support life outside the ark.
Noah then removed the cover of the ark and saw that the ground had dried. But Noah did not then leave the ark. He waited for God’s instruction to leave the ark. This was forthcoming, as God ordered Noah, “Leave the ark, you and your wife, your sons and their wives with you.” (Genesis 8:16) All the living creatures were also released from the ark to re-establish their kind and develop the population of the earth.
One cannot help but ask, why did Noah wait for explicit instructions to leave the ark? Why did he not disembark immediately upon finding the earth to have sufficiently dried? It could not have been very pleasant in the ark. The stench from all the animals in close quarters must have been overwhelming, and the waste had surely piled up and was crowding Noah and his family. It is altogether possible that Noah was afraid of what he might find out there. Knowing the extent of the destruction he was avoiding confronting what was the graveyard of all of civilization as he had known it. The first liberators of Nazi death camps encountered horrifying sights they wish they had never seen. It is certainly possible that Noah was procrastinating here.
Yet, there is something pure about Noah and his tendency toward blind obedience. Noah had not entered the ark in the first place before God had ordered him to so. No fewer than four times does the Torah state that Noah did just as God had instructed him. The last verse in chapter 6 as well as 3 verses in chapter 7 state that Noah did exactly as the Lord had said. There is something charming about one who dutifully obeys, and we find Moses also praised for following God’s precise instructions when it came to building the Tabernacle. But there is something nagging and troubling about it as well. Nowhere do we find Noah uttering a peep to God about the coming apocalypse. He had no complaints and made no attempts to dissuade God from that course of action. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks criticizes Noah’s failure to take responsibility for his generation, an important aspect of leadership.
In a later generation Abraham also was privy to the destruction of Sodom and its neighboring cities. But he did not simply nod his head in acceptance of God’s will. He fought the verdict, attempting to negotiate and advocate on Sodom’s behalf despite Sodom’s evil, and despite its destruction being of no personal consequence to Abraham. Noah did not have this sense of leadership or responsibility.
There is another source which offers us insight into Noah’s attitude, one a little more favorable to Noah. The Midrash records an argument between Noah and his sons once the earth dried. Noah’s sons wished to leave immediately, but Noah resisted. ‘I entered the ark by Divine directive and I shall leave by divine directive.’ His sons felt they needed no sanction to exit the ark and Noah felt that every initiative in life requires God’s sanction.
A colleague suggests that Noah’s sons were of a mind that interaction with God need happen only in a crisis, only at decisive and extremely significant times. The mundane activities of everyday need not involve interaction with God. Noah felt otherwise. He insisted that our relationship with God was especially defined by our everyday moments, in the ebb and flow of daily life.
Which side do we take? Are we more like Noah or more like his sons? Do we wait for a crisis in order to bring God into the picture? Someone once asked me if I could prepare their child for his Bar Mitzvah which was six months away. Well, I could probably prepare him enough to bluff his way through the day, performing the rites usually read by a Bar Mitzvah child. But could I really prepare him for being Bar Mitzvah? Not in six months or even six years! When a boy turns 13 he is deemed ready to assume all the adult responsibilities of a Jew, including all the practicable Mitzvot of the Torah. After growing up in an environment supportive of such a lifestyle, having been trained appropriately in all aspects of Jewish life, a ‘coming of age’ marks the time when the child can independently build on that identity, supported by continued learning and an encouraging household. Without that background, however, and with no supporting environment there is no way a child can fulfill the requirements he suddenly becomes accountable for at that age. If God is invited to participate in our lives only during such lifecycle events, if we are content being “yizkor” Jews or “crisis” Jews, then we have consciously or unconsciously taken the side of Noah’s sons. A Pastor once described this encounter with some of his congregants succinctly: Hatch them, match them and dispatch them. Noah himself, however, saw God’s involvement in every part of life and he therefore insisted on waiting for God’s instructions to exit the ark and begin rebuilding the world.
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