Leadership of Noah

This week’s alumni dvar torah is by Tova Reiter

There is significant discussion in the commentaries about whether Noah is an exemplary leader or not, in particular in comparison to Abraham. One striking midrash which has found its way into much of the primary and secondary literature directly contrasts the two, in particular as regarding their relationships with G-d.

ט אלה, תולדת נח–נח איש צדיק תמים היה, בדרתיו:  את-האלקים, התהלך-נח

This is the lineage of Noah–Noah was a righteous man, he was blameless in his time, Noah walked with God. [Alter, Genesis, ch. 6]

and in Lekh-Lekha:

א ויהי אברם, בן-תשעים שנה ותשע שנים; וירא יקוק אל-אברם, ויאמר אליו אני-קל שקי–התהלך לפני, והיה תמים

And Abram was ninety-nine years old and the Lord appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am kel-shakai. Walk before Me and be blameless, and I will grant my covenant between Me and you and I will multiply you very greatly. [ibid. ch 17]

The midrash writes [Freedman, Genesis Rabba 30]:

י את האלקים התהלך נח

ר’ יהודה ור’ נחמיה

ר”י אמר: משל לשר, שהיו לו שני בנים, א’ גדול וא’ קטן

‘אמר לקטן, ‘הלך עמי’ ואמר לגדול, ‘בא והלך לפני

“כך אברהם שהיה כחו יפה (בראשית יז, א): “התהלך לפני והיה תמים

“אבל נח שהיה כחו רע, “את האלקים התהלך נח

10 “Noah walked with G-d.”  

R. Judah and R. Nehemiah [differed].

R.  Judah said:  This may be compared to a king who had two sons, one grown up and the other a child.

To the younger he said, ‘Walk with me,’ but to the older, ‘Walk before me.’

Similarly, to Abraham, whose [moral] strength was great, “Walk thou before Me.”

Of Noah, whose strength was feeble [lit. bad], “Noah walked with G-d.”

This first contrast is not the most complimentary to Noah, but we find this repeated in a number of commentaries. The thrust is that Noah was only chosen to inhabit the ark and repopulate the world because he was the best of the bad options.

The midrash continues in an extraordinary way:

:ר’ נחמיה אמר

‘!משל לאוהבו של מלך שהיה משתקע בטיט עבה. הציץ המלך וראה אותו, אמר ליה: ‘עד שאתה משתקע בטיט; הלך עמי

“הדא הוא דכתיב, “את האלהים התהלך נח

ולמה אברהם דומה? לאוהבו של מלך שראה את המלך מהלך במבואות האפלים, הציץ אוהבו, והתחיל מאיר עליו דרך החלון

“!הציץ המלך וראה אותו, אמר לו, ‘עד שאתה מאיר לי דרך חלון, בא והאיר לפני

‘כך אמר הקדוש ברוך הוא לאברהם, ‘עד שתהא מאיר לי מאספוטמיא ומחברותיה, בא והאיר לפני בארץ ישראל

Nehemiah said:

He might be compared to a king’s friend who was sinking in thick mud, and when the king looked out and saw him, he said to him, ‘Instead of sinking in mud, come and walk with me!’

Similarly it is written, “Noah walked with G-d.”

But Abraham’s case is rather to be compared to that of a king who was plunging about in dark alleys, and when his friend saw him he shone a light for him through the window.

Said he to him, ‘Instead of lighting me through the window, come and show a light before me!’

Even so did the Holy One, blessed be He, say to Abraham: ‘Instead of showing a light for Me from Mesopotamia and its environs, come and show one before Me in the land of Israel.’

I hope that any explication I offer doesn’t gloss over the genuinely perplexing choice of metaphor here, but some beautiful interpretations are offered by the מפרשי מדרש: What was G-d doing mucking about in dark alleys? Trying to come close to the world. (שם משמואל) And Abraham sees this and so begins to shine a little light through the window, helping to bring G-d’s Presence closer through mitzvot (פירוש מהרז”ו) or hokhma  (אגרא דכלה מדרשים ותרגומים ביאורי מדרש רבה).

Noah, on the other hand, comments the עץ יוסף (from יפה תואר):

שהקטן שאין כחו יפה ילך לימין אביו, שימינו תסעדנו

והגדול שכחו יפה ילך לפניו שאינו צריך סיועו

וכן נח שלא היה כחו גדול בעבודת ד’ היה צריך להתבודדות עם ה’ פן יפתהו חטאים, וכל שכן שלא יוכל להוכיחם

אבל אברהם מתחזק בכל מקום ומוכיח הדור ולא ידע רע

The small, whose strength is weak, goes to the right of his father, for the father’s right to aid him.

The greater one, whose strength is good, will go before him, not needing the father’s assistance.

And so Noah, whose strength in serving G-d was not great, needed to be solitary with G-d lest he be seduced by sinners. He certainly could not rebuke them.

Abraham, though, strengthened himself everywhere and rebuked the generation, and did not know evil. [R. Torczyner translation]

Abraham, iconoclast, trailblazing leader, is able to create his own light, to brighten the generation as a whole. Noah, on the other hand, is himself in danger of being influenced by the evils of his generation. But this is not necessarily a simple critique of Noah. The Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Yeruham writes beautifully [Sicha, Parshat Lekh-Lekha תשס”ז, loose translation my own]:

ברור במשל שהאוהב נתון בצרה, במצוקה והוא זקוק לעזרה. הדרך שלו לצאת מן הטיט העבה היא לאחוז את יד המלך המושטת אליו ולהיסמך עליה עד שיוּצא אל מציאות פשוטה ונקייה יותר, שבה יתהלך עם המלך….ראשית, כוללת היא הכרה של האוהב בכך שהוא משתקע בטיט, דבר שאינו מובן מאליו. מחלה קשה אך מצויה היא שאין האדם מכיר בכך שהוא שקוע במציאות נמוכה שמצֵרה לו ואינה מאפשרת לו להביא לידי ביטוי את עצמיותו באופן חופשי…. לא זו בלבד שנח מכיר כי אין הוא יכול לצאת בכוחות עצמו מן המצב השפל שבו הוא שקוע, אלא אף את הפתרון למצבו הוא יודע – המשימה המוטלת עליו היא לאחוז את יד המלך המושטת לעברו, להיות נכון ולהתמסר כל כולו למלכו של עולם מתוך הידיעה הברורה כי רק בעזרתו ובחסותו יוכל להחזיק מעמד בתוך דור שנחתם דינו לכלייה במבול.

It is clear that the [first] metaphor is of being in extreme distress and needing help. The way to leave the suffocating mud is to grasp the outstretched arm of the king and rely on him until he can take you to somewhere safer… But first must come cognizance of drowning, something that is not necessarily obvious. There’s nothing quite so difficult as recognizing that you are immersed in a constrictive reality that prevents expression of self… It was not just this that Noah recognized, that he was unable to free himself from his awful situation, but also the solution–the responsibility imposed upon him to grasp the reaching hand of the King, to surrender himself entirely to the Master of the World, from the certain knowledge that only with His help and mercy could he hold on in the midst of a generation destined for destruction.

The midrash finishes:

“.’הדא הוא דכתיב (שם מח, טו) “ויברך את יוסף ויאמר, ‘האלקים אשר התהלכו אבותי לפניו וגו

רבי יוחנן וריש לקיש

רבי יוחנן אמר: לרועה שהוא עומד ומביט בצאנו

ר”ל אמר: לנשיא שהוא מהלך וזקנים לפניו

על דעתיה דרבי יוחנן, אנו צריכים לכבודו

ועל דעתיה דרשב”ל, הוא צריך לכבודנו

Similarly, it is written, “And he blessed Joseph, and said: ‘The G-d before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac did walk…’”

R. Johanan’s and Resh Lakish [gave two illustrations of this].

R.Johanan said: It was as if a shepherd stood and watched his flocks.

Resh Lakish said: It was as if a prince walked along while the elders preceded him. [As an escort, to make known his coming.]

On R. Johanan’s view : We need His proximity. [Lit. ‘place.’ We must be near to G-d, as it were, so as to enjoy His protection.]

On the view of Resh Lakish : He needs us to glorify Him. [By propagating the knowledge of His greatness.]

I suggest that this midrash is proposing two different frameworks, two kinds of situations which each require their own form of leadership. There is the Noah-time, where the earth spills over with destruction, a time of shallow violence, petty theft, of disregard for the value of human life. A דור המבול, where we cannot free ourselves of the muck, a time when even our leaders are susceptible to corruption and inhumanity. We are a flock of sheep, subject to the terrors of the wild, and all we can do is crowd close together under the protective staff of the shepherd. And there is the Abraham-time, where we need pioneering leaders, fiery furnaces, the smashing of our idols with rousing calls to actions. A time where we can bring G-d’s Presence into our lives and enlighten the darkest parts of the world, where our very existence is a testament to G-d’s glory. Where we can bravely walk alone without fear, because we know we stand on firm footing.

This week especially, I experience Israel and the Orthodox community as battered by destructive waters, from both within and without. Our leaders (some with the best of intentions) can be guilty of cruelty, arrogance and theft, while external enemies physically threaten our safety and autonomy. It is difficult to feel like anything but a frightened child grasping at his father’s hand for safety. Perhaps now is when we need the acknowledgement that we are in over our heads because the evil is subtle and insidious, and the generation demands the quiet but resolute determination of Noah-leadership.

The Rosh Yeshiva concludes:

עבודה משמעותית היא להצליח להתיק את העיניים מן הטיט העבה שבו שקועות הרגליים ולנשא את המבט אל עבר רצון ה’ והמגמות שהוא מנסה להופיע בעולם. אך משהצליח, ניטעים באדם כוחות שמאפשרים לו לסייע למלך… הוא נעשה ראוי להיות שותף למהלך של הופעת האלקות בתוך מבואותיה האפלים של  המציאות, והוא נקרא על ידי המלך “עד שאתה מאיר לי דרך חלון, בא והאיר לפני

It requires substantive effort to successfully raise our eyes from the mud that envelops us to gaze at the Heavenly Will that He places upon the world. But he that succeeds gains the strength to help the king… He is fit to be a partner in the mission of spreading Divinity through the dark alleys of existence, and he is summoned by the King himself: “Instead of showing me light through a window, come and enlighten my path before me!”

If we look to the leadership of Noah for guidance to weather the storm, hold fast to our ideals and the loving grasp of G-d through the darkness, then we may again merit to spread the Truth and the Light.

Tova Reiter (SBM 2015) is completing her senior year at University of Chicago in Beijing. 

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