Parshat Noach does not begin where it should. Or, perhaps, Parshat Bereishit does not end where it should.
Parshat Bereishit concludes by describing mankind’s corruption and Hashem’s resolve to erase mankind from the face of the Earth. The last sentence of Parshat Bereishit, however, informs us that Noach found favor with Hashem. The next parsha, Noach, begins: “These are the generations of Noach, Noach was a righteous man, he was perfect in his generation; with the Lord did Noach walk. And Noach begot three sons, Shem, Cham and Yaphet. And the land was corrupt before the Lord, and full was the land with violence.” Why split the declaration in Parshat Bereishit that Noach found grace with Hashem from the rest of the story of Noach and the flood? Or stated differently, why include with the story of Creation the story of mankind’s corruption and the resolve to destroy mankind? Why not have all those aspects simply contained in Parshat Noach? The answer may be bound up with the question of what makes Noach righteous.
Noach does not seem to behave in a particularly righteous manner. Indeed, the first verse of this parsha, stating that “Noach was a righteous man, he was perfect in his generation…” is famously interpreted to mean that Noach was only righteous by comparison to his generation. Had Noach lived in a better generation he would have been unworthy of notice.
When Avraham learns that five wicked cities are to be destroyed he prays on their behalf. Moshe repeatedly pleads on behalf of a sinful nation. In contrast, the Torah does not even hint that Noach did anything for his generation? We neither read of Noach pleading for others nor of Noach crying over their loss. He does not seem to have a compassionate nature. When the time comes to look for dry land, he sends the raven on the mission. The raven is an “unclean” bird. The ark only carried two of each kind of unclean creature but seven pairs of all clean animals (7:2-3). Despite the fact that the loss of an unclean animal would have been a decree of extinction, Noach callously, or unthinkingly, chooses such an animal rather than one of the more numerous clean animals. Then, upon exiting the ark, the first thing Noach does is plant a vineyard and gets drunk. It is also, we see, in Noach’s nature to harshly curse his grandson. So what does Hashem see in Noach?
In Bereishit (5:29) we are told of Noach’s birth. Three verses later (5:32) we are told of the birth of Noach’s three sons. At this point we learn of an interaction involving the Bnei Elohim and the daughters of men (HaAdam). According to some, Bnei Elohim refers to men of exalted status, just as judges or rulers are sometimes referred to as elohim, while HaAdam refers to men of lesser status. The Torah tells us that the Bnei Elohim took the daughters of HaAdam as wives. The commentaries generally understand that this “taking” occurred against the will of the women involved. After relating this abuse of power in the area of sexual relations, the Torah relates that Hashem “saw” mankind’s wickedness. The Torah then notes that Noach found Hashem’s favor. Thus does Bereishit end followed immediately thereafter, at the start of Parshat Noach, with the declaration that Noach was a tzadik.
The surrounding text teaches what made Noach a tzadik. Noach was a tzadik because he overcame his culture’s sexuality depravity. Note that in Parshat Bereishit, Noach is mentioned both before and after the report of the Bnei Elohim forcibly taking women. Noach lived through those depraved times. The culture in which Noach existed was one where rape and abduction was the ruling class’ modus operandi. Indeed, in Bereishit (4:19) we are told that a person named Lemech (לֶ֖מֶךְ) took two wives and may have been the first practitioner of polygamy. Rashi tells us that a practice arose to have one wife for procreation and one wife for carnal satisfaction.
Yet Noach rose above this culture. We know this because the Torah, in identifying Noach’s children, goes out of the way to state that Noach was righteous. The opening phrase of Parshat Noach, “these are the generations,” should be followed with a list of decedents. Instead the Torah digresses to mention that Noach was a righteous man, a tzadik. This is to teach us that Noach begot his children in an acceptable manner not through violently seizing a wife. Further, who else do the rabbis call a tzadik? None other than Yosef, who is given this designation because he resisted Potiphar’s wife’s sexual overture (Yoma 35b, Sota 36b).
Parshat Bereishit includes mention of Noach being favored by Hashem because through Noach creation would be renewed and continued. Noach was not, however, worthy enough to have his story fully linked to the story of Bereishit. The story of Bereishit is the story of Divine benevolence. Noach was not an exemplar of that benevolence and so his story must be separated. Although Noach deserves credit for not succumbing to the vice of his generation, he failed to assist that generation. As the commentators suggest, Noach is deficient in comparison to Avraham.
Noach we are told walked with Elohim, a name for God denoting justice. The name of God associated with Avraham, the name of God that begins the next parsha, Lech Lecha, is the name denoting mercy. May we merit being like Noach to the extent that we can overcome the negative traits of our society but be like Avraham such that we plead even for a society with which we do not wish to associate and by which we do not wish to be influenced.
By William Fraenkel
William S.J. Fraenkel received a Bachelors of Arts in religion and a law degree from NYU and served as a board member and officer of several Orthodox shuls.