All Is Relative

Sermon Parashat Noach 2017
Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz

All is Relative

During Yom Kippur, I gave a D’var Torah that contrasted the characters of Jonah and Abraham. Jonah, I argued, was a direct reversal of some of Abraham’s most praiseworthy qualities as we examined a prophet who was told to minister to Nineveh but who did so with considerable reluctance and judgement. Meanwhile, the Jewish tradition holds up Abraham as a paragon of virtue: compassionate, brave and visionary, he is the exemplar of Jewish ethical monotheism as he challenges God over the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham himself, of course, knew his own darker sphere, expressed through that morally inexplicable account of the Akeidah – the Binding of Isaac. Even so, in the taste test of Great Biblical Heroes, Abraham comes out on top.

In a sense, the Torah invites us to play a similar game between Abraham and Noach. Consider this Round Two, if you will. Parashat Noach is an extensive Torah portion that stretches from the Flood and its aftermath to the Tower of Babel and all the way to the generations leading up to Abraham (then still known as Abram, of course). So, what were some of the key differences and similarities between Abraham and Noach?

The portion doesn’t hesitate to launch into a character description of Noach. In fact, our reading opens with ‘Eleh toldot Noach, Noach ish tzadik tamim hayah bedorotav, et ha’Elohim hithalech Noach.’ – ‘These are the generations of Noach, Noach was a righteous man; he was perfect in his generation and Noach walked with God.’ (Gen. 6:1)

This all seems like a perfectly acceptable way to issue praise for one of the Hebrew Bible’s most well-known and best-loved characters. The Torah tells us that Noach was righteous and that he walked with God. Or does it?

If we play detective with the text, some nuance emerges which the Rabbinic tradition exploits to full homiletical advantage. With every Torah text we read, the text calls out to us ‘darsheini’ – ‘drash me, interpret me!’ and this is especially relevant when we are reading the foundational, mythical narratives of Genesis. The Midrash challenges a seemingly straightforward descriptor of a Biblical actor. Rashi gives us pause and draws on the following Midrash from Bereishit Rabbah, chapter 9:

“Rabbi Yehudah said: in his generation he was a tzaddik (righteous), but had he lived in the generation of Moses or Samuel, he would not have been [considered] a tzaddik. This is like the parable of someone who has a wine cellar. He opened one vat of wine and found vinegar. He opened a second vat and a third vat of wine and found vinegar again. They said to him ‘it is sour’, to which he answered, ‘and this is the best we have.’ And so Noach was a tzaddik in his generation.”

Rabbi Yehudah, according to the Midrash subverts the p’shat, the literal meaning of our verse to mean something quite the opposite. Suddenly, Noach isn’t praiseworthy anymore but a paltry example of baseline decency in a world which has fallen into disrepute. If all vats of wine have turned sour, this this is all we’ve got. In other words, the fallen world of the early chapters of Genesis has set the moral bar very low and there are plenty of Midrashim that reinforce that reading, with fanciful accounts of people’s gross misconduct (and one of the more surprising pop culture moments was the 2014 film ‘Noah’, directed by Darren Aronofsky, starring Russell Crowe which visually drew on some of these more disturbing midrashim).

Yet, the Midrashic tradition wouldn’t be true to itself if it didn’t know internal debate and tension. A makhloket (rabbinic disagreement) emerges with another Rabbi interjecting:

“Rabbi Nechemya said, if he was a tzaddik in his generation, then all the more so would he have been a tzaddik in the generation of Moses and Samuel! This is like a flask of balm, sealed with wax and wrapped in thread. This flask was placed between graves [at a cemetery] and the scent of the balm spread itself throughout the cemetery… all the more so was Noach the righteous among his generation.”

Rabbi Nechemya takes the opposite approach: rather than constructing Noach as Rabbi Yehudah did, he praises Noach’s fortitude among profound moral corruption. Like a fragrance amongst the rot, Noach could still overpower evil with his innate goodness, untainted and unblemished, like the word ‘tamim’ suggests. There is a purity and innocence to Rabbi Nechemya’s Noach, and we can only imagine what Noach could have been under more favorable circumstances.

Which argument are you likely to find more compelling?

Rashi complicates matters further by bringing in a textual comparison to Abraham. Citing Midrash Tanchuma, Rashi picks up on a suble descriptor in our verse: ‘ha’Elohim hithalech im Noach’ – which we would literally translate as ‘God walked with Noach’. Rashi contrasts this with a description of Abraham’s walk with God as ‘Avraham hithalech lifnei Adonai’ – ‘And Abraham walked before God.’ (Gen. 24:40). A similar dichotomy as in the previous Midrash is set up here: Rashi suggests that Noach was compliant but lacking in initiative: he followed God’s lead. Abraham, however, true to form – took the lead and walked out before God. Noach upholds morality; while Abraham crafts a new moral vision altogether.

Comparing the two is not without its problems. Do we suffer from implicit bias? Do we want to validate Abraham’s moral courage because he is our spiritual ancestor? Is there a touch of Jewish prejudging involved? I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions. Perhaps we should take Rabbi Nechemya’s charitable view and commend Noach for doing what he could. Even so, we as Jews are called out to push ourselves – like the Ivri’im, the boundary-crossers that we are – beyond our comfort zones. In what ways, the tradition seems to ask us, are we like Noach and in what ways are we like Abraham?
When do we exist in passive modalities of morality and when do we rise to the challenge? When is enough sufficient and can we rest in the certainty that we are doing what we can, and when should we go, like Abraham ‘lifnei meshurat hadin’ – beyond the requirement of the Law?

We all have parts of Noach and Abraham in us (and on a bad day, some Jonah too). The relationship between moral relativism and absolutism is a complex and nuanced one, as is the call that the Torah places upon us to be moral exemplars in the generations that we find ourselves in.

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