What can we learn from Noah?

What can we learn from the biblical story of Noah? Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg links this week's sidrah to this week's UN report on climate change


Noah is not just a man of few words; for over six hundred years he’s a man of none. Until after the flood has come and gone, its waters risen and abated, until the earth has become habitable once again and he has planted a vineyard and got drunk, he utters not on single syllable. When he does eventually open his mouth, the first sentence which emerges is a curse.

Instead, Noah is a doer. God orders him to build an Ark: he does as God commands him. God instructs him to take two of all the unclean species of animals with him and seven of each of the clean: he does as God has commanded. But is it always right to do as told, to obey without question, when the lives of countless others are at stake?

Noah, according to the Biblical account never reasons why; unlike Abraham, he never challenges God, never protests against the evident injustice of God’s decree. Is every single human being really wicked? he might have demanded of God. Is the entire human race truly at fault? If people have done wrong, do the birds and mammals therefore also deserve to die? How can you turn so rapidly against your own creation, the work of your very hands, which you so recently described day after day as good and finally as ‘very good indeed’? These are not questions Noah raises. The Torah does not testify that he experiences so much as a single moment of hesitation. He does, without demur.

Popular Jewish tradition blames him for this silence. He may indeed be a Tzaddik, a righteous man, as the text acknowledges. But he is a Tzaddik im Pelz, ‘a righteous man in a fur coat’, as the caustic Yiddish compliment pithily puts it. He may be good at heart, but if he wraps up his goodness in his own fur coat and keeps himself warm in snug isolation, of what benefit is his virtue to those around him? Such insulated sainthood is of little benefit to society; its impact on others is virtually nil. ‘Noah was a righteous, perfect man in his generations,’ the Torah states, in explanation of why he found favour with God. It is difficult to avoid the thought, unlikely though it is, that the sacred text may be employing irony.

Yet, though Noah never speaks either before he enters or while on board the ark, there is a silent eloquence to his deeds. He builds the ship; gathers the animals together; coaxes each kind into its unfamiliar stables and feeds and cares for them amidst the rolling darkness and the pervasive fear which must have embedded itself in the muscles and bones of them all. But it is one of the last of his actions which I find the most moving; it happens shortly before he opens the doors of the ark to reveal a devastated world and is easily overlooked. But the rabbis held to the exegetical principle that there is no such thing as redundancy in the Torah’s language; therefore, even the smallest detail speaks.

Noah has released the raven; it never comes back but overflies the slowly drying earth until the waters have truly subsided. What bird should he send next? He needs a creature of sufficient reliability and attachment to return; otherwise, what will he be able to learn from its behaviour? He chooses the dove and sends it ‘away from himself’. The text employs the causative form of the verb: not simply vayishlach, ‘he sent’; but vayeshalach, ‘he sent away’. What therefore is the need to emphasise that he did so mei’eilav, ‘from himself’? The picture forms of a man reluctant to part with this companionable creature; he holds it gently for a moment, hesitates perhaps, before leaning forward, stretching out his arms and releasing the dove over the swirling, windswept waste of water all around the ark’s high resting place.

That evening, when the bird returns, Noah is there to welcome it back. He has probably been waiting anxiously all day. When it appears ‘he stretches forth his hand and takes her, and brings her in to himself’. What motivates the Torah to add the seemingly unnecessary clause, ‘brings her in to himself’? What else might he have done? Noah evidently really cares about this dove; his actions evidence tenderness and concern. Perhaps he has even come to love this dove, subsequently an emblem to humanity of faithfulness, gentleness and peace.

When Noah finally opens the doors of the ark and sees the desolate landscape all around, he weeps. "Four saw a new world", the Talmud notes, meaning that they lived to perceive and inhabit a totally different environment from that which they had known at the start of their lives. First among them is Noah. Job is also included, for whom, we are seemingly expected to think, a new wife, new children and renewed wealth are something of a compensation. Noah had it harder. Where a mere year earlier there had been habitation, forest and farmlands all around him, there now lay only a desolation of mud, uprooted trees, carcasses of mammals, the washed-out clusters of feather of once birds, once nimble and elegant in flight, all the lucent glory gone from their broken wings.

According to the Zohar, at that moment Noah weeps. God rebukes him for his belated tears: "Why did you not weep earlier?" God demands, "before it was all too late". This hardly comes well from the Deity; it was God, after all, not Noah, who thought up and brought on the flood in the first place. God, it will shortly emerge, also has regrets. The very cause given for destroying all life, that ‘the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth’, will be re-presented as precisely the reason why God is determined never to bring such a flood again. It’s as if God were saying: people can’t help doing bad, so I’d better learn patience.

But with regard to Noah the questions stands: why didn’t he weep earlier; why didn’t he cry, and cry out, before it was all too late?

Perhaps this may be the explanation for the timing of Noah’s tears. His year in the ark has taught him how precious life is; he has learnt to love, if not all, at least some of the creatures for which he has been delegated to care. So, when was faced with the departure of the gentlest of birds he is anxious and hesitant, unwilling to entrust it to the uncertainties of a new and unknown earth. When it returns, he reaches out and drew it in, holding it, perhaps, for a moment against his heart. He didn’t know how much he truly cared.

He is not the only human being who learns rather late to love. He is not the only person whose tears and protests come after the decisive moment has passed.

Noah becomes "a man of the land"; maybe he wants to cultivate the earth which he, like God, has realised is not just good, but very too good, too good to be left half destroyed. Among his horticultural successes is his vineyard; he experiments with the grapes, makes wine and gets drunk. Although the Torah goes on to state that he lives some three hundred years after the Flood, this is our final picture of him, curled up naked, stone drunk in his tent. Perhaps he cannot help but see, superimposed on the tiny scraps of land which he has managed to bring back into fragile cultivation, the people, animals and landscapes as once they were. Perhaps he has visions of the dead walking across his fields and through his vineyard. Maybe it is these unbearable images which drive him to drink in the first place. Maybe it is the question: was there something I could and should have said and done, which haunts him and hounds him into the misery of his tent?

Maybe it isn’t God, but he himself who asks the question: "Why didn’t I weep earlier?" while the images of a vast drowned population nod their dead, muddy heads?

There is such a thing as too late, as the terrible legacy of "if only", and the image of a hand which stretches towards a dove - which is no longer there to return.


Jonathan Wittenberg is senior rabbi of Masorti Judaism

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