The article below is from Rabbi Riskin’s book Bereishit: Confronting Life, Love and Family, part of his Torah Lights series of commentaries on the weekly parsha, published by Maggid and available for purchase here.

Parshat Noach: Outreach or Inreach; Family vs. World

Rabbi Dr. Shomo Riskin is the Founder and Rosh HaYeshiva of Ohr Torah Stone

RSR Head Shot Gershon Ellinson credit

“Noah was a righteous man, whole-hearted in his generations; Noah walked with God. “(Genesis 6:9)

Was Noah truly righteous? And what does true righteousness entail? At first blush, this shouldn’t even be a question. Surely, the opening verse of the portion suggests that it’s an open and shut case. After all, does any other figure in the Torah receive three adulatory statements in one verse, or even come close to such seemingly boundless praise? Not even Moses is called a tzadik (righteous man).

Before the testimonials for Noah are approved and sealed, Rashi reminds us that although certain Sages look upon Noah favorably, others were meager with their praise. The text states, ‘righteous…wholehearted in his generations.’ The Talmud (Sanhedrin 108a) suggests that there are two ways to interpret this qualifying phrase: on the one hand, if he is so worthy of praise in a generation so completely evil, how much more praiseworthy would he have been in the generation of Abraham when he would have had righteous company. On the other hand, perhaps the qualifying phrase suggests that Noah is only praiseworthy in comparison with his generation of scoundrels. Had he lived in the generation of Abraham, he would not even be worthy of mention.

But the question remains: Why even suggest the possibility that Noah is second-rate when the plain meaning of the text is so adulatory? Let us compare and contrast Noah and Abraham in similar circumstances. When Abraham is told that the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah are about to be destroyed, he argues with the Almighty as though he were bargaining in the marketplace of Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehudah:

Will the Almighty destroy the righteous with the wicked, will not the Judge of the entire earth do justice? If there are fifty righteous men, forty righteous men…even ten righteous men, will the cities not be saved? (Gen. 18:24–33)

In stark contrast, when Noah is informed of the impending destruction of the world, he obediently goes about constructing a private ark to rescue himself, his family, and a requisite number of earthly creatures. While Abraham emerges as the missionary who breaks walls as well as idols, as one who opens doors to his tent in every direction to welcome and influence as many people as possible, Noah would rather cut himself off from all adverse influences in order to erect an enclosure to protect his high-level communication with his God.

Whether one identifies with the Abraham camp or the Noah camp reflects one’s outlook on Judaism and its relationship to the mod- ern world. Hassidism, which began as a distinctive Jewish outreach movement, usually sided with Abraham in its biblical interpretations. Rabbi Jacob Joseph of Polnoy, the famous disciple of the Ba’al Shem Tov in the eighteenth century, writes in his Toledot Yakov Yosef that when the Torah describes Noah as ‘walking with God,’ it is a pejorative description. Noah walked only and exclusively with God, tragically neglecting the wayward individuals all around him. Noah missed the opportunity of bringing God to humanity.

On the other hand, the Ketav Sofer, probably reacting to the Jewish Enlightenment (Haskala) and the Reform movement which threatened the Orthodox community during his lifetime (Pressburg, Hungary, late eighteenth and early nineteenth century), utilizes his biblical commentary to justify turning inwards. He argues that Noah was absolutely correct in maintaining the wall between himself and the world. After all, Noah had good reason to fear that if he went outside to battle the prevailing winds, his own children might be tossed to the edges – and even cast beyond the pale – by their strong impact. The risk just wasn’t worth it.

Interestingly, the Ketav Sofer was projecting the view of his father, the Hatam Sofer (1762–1839), one of the major leaders of Ashkenazi Jewry who vehemently fought against the breaches into traditional Judaism during his lifetime. He insisted that hadash [anything new – a play on the biblical-halakhic term for wheat harvested before the sixteenth day of Nissan] is forbidden by the Torah. The Ketav Sofer argued that the behavior of the prophet Samuel’s wayward children [I Sam. 7:15–8:3] was a direct consequence of the fact that their father preached all over Israel and returned home for only one visit each year (tekufat ha-shana). If you go out to save the world, you might lose your own children!

Clearly, there is no singular view in the biblical and rabbinic sources. However, it is the outgoing Abraham, and not the in-reaching Noah, who is declared the first Jew. We are unequivocally commanded to teach our fellow co-religionists who are straying from the path [Lev. 19:17]. Maimonides goes so far as to define the commandment to love God as directing us to ensure that God is beloved and known throughout the world, and insists that God instructed Moses to teach Israel the 613 commandments and the rest of the world the seven laws of morality [Laws of Kings 8:10]. Further, our prophets instruct us to be a ‘light unto the nations,’ the Torah defines our mission as a kingdom of priest-teachers, and the Aleinu prayer sets forth the vision of perfecting the world under the kingdom of ethical monotheism.

Faced with the contemporary challenges of assimilation and alienation of many Jews from traditional Judaism, can one mediate a balanced position between the Abrahams and the Noahs, between the advocates of in-reach and practitioners of out-reach?

I believe that the correct balance is suggested by Rabbi Yitzhak Arama in his commentary Akedat Yitzhak, in his remarks on the mishna in the Ethics of our Fathers:

Raban Shimon ben Gamliel says: ‘The world endures on three things: justice, truth and peace….’ (Avot 1:18)

Justice, he explains, is the relationship between the Jew and his society, our obligation to the world at large. Peace, on the other hand, is shalom bayit, the relationship between the Jew and his home, our obligation to family. And truth is the balanced combination of both.

As a source for his interpretation, R. Arama turns to the lesson taught by Jethro, the Midianite priest, to Moses, his son-in-law. Jethro is considered an important biblical hero because the advice he gave Moses radically reformed the entire judicial structure in the desert. (Consequently, the biblical portion containing the Decalogue bears his name.) And Moses listened to Jethro:

And Moses chose able men out of all Israel, and made them heads over the people, rulers of thousands, rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens. (Ex. 18:25)

But is this all that Jethro taught Moses? If we look at the opening of the encounter between Jethro and Moses, we find another, more subtle, layer of purpose behind Jethro’s confrontation:

Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, took Tziporah, Moses’ wife, after he [Moses] had sent her away, and her two sons…And Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, came with [Moses] sons and with his wife unto Moses…and he said unto Moses, ‘I thy father-in-law Jethro am coming unto you, and here are your wife, and her two sons with her…’ (Ex. 18:1–6)

The repetition of the word hoten (father-in-law), and the continuous mentioning of Moses’ wife and his two sons, are there for a purpose. When he went on his mission to Pharaoh, Moses had apparently left his family behind. In effect, Moses gave up his family in order to minister to the Jewish nation. And, according to Akedat Yitzhak, Jethro is teaching Moses that he has acted incorrectly; he must first discharge his obligation to his family, and only then does he have the right to dedicate himself to his nation and the problems of the society at large.

This idea may very well be the key to balancing the tension between Noah’s tight ship and Abraham’s open tent. The first responsibility a person must have is to his own family. But he cannot rest on his laurels, on his own Garden of Eden in the suburbs of New York (or Jerusalem for that matter). The time must arrive in every Jew’s life when he must turn the closed ship into an open tent, the Noahide perspective into an Abrahamic ideal. And when one attempts to do both simultaneously, it is crucially important that one’s own family does not get left behind.

Shabbat Shalom


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