Noah was a righteous man; he was blameless in his age; Noah walked with God.
Noah, the tiller of the soil, was the first to plant a vineyard. He drank of the wine and became drunk …
IN HIS GENERATIONS: Some of our Rabbis explain it to his credit; he was righteous even in his generation; it follows that had he lived in a generation of righteous people he would have been even more righteous owing to the force of good example. Others, however, explain it to his discredit: in comparison with his own generation he was accounted righteous, but had he lived in the generation of Abraham he would have been accounted as of no importance.
There is a well-known saying that Noah was the first example of the Yiddish expression, “a tzaddik im peltz” — a tzaddik wearing a fur coat. What is a tzaddik in peltz? When the cold weather comes, there are two ways of dealing with it. One way is to turn on a heater; the other way is to wear a fur coat. The result for the individual is the same: Whether one turns on the heater or wears a fur coat, he will be warm enough and can continue to function. The difference is only regarding others. When one turns on the heater, others will enjoy the warmth as well, whereas when one wears a fur coat, the individual becomes warm, but the others remain cold.
…there is a flood in almost every generation. In some generations, the “flood” is physical; it may be a wildfire, a tsunami, an earthquake, or a volcanic eruption. In other generations, the flood is not physical but spiritual. … Hence, the need arises to build an ark. For this reason, people gather together and safeguard themselves; they build for themselves walls so as not to drown in the ocean of water. On the other hand, the story of Noah should remind us that even someone who is saved from the flood can end up like a drunkard …
Steinsaltz discusses Noah’s loneliness, a loneliness that eventually separates him from others and leads him to drunkenness. Loneliness, Steinsaltz writes, is part of the tzaddik’s life — the unique encounter with God requires some degree of separation from others. How one handles that loneliness is crucial — with Abraham and Moses in counterpoint to Noah.
Why might Noah’s encounter with God require loneliness?
[Noah’s merit] it seems to me, turns on whether Noah’s isolation was part of his character – he was a loner – or merely a necessary tactic in his time and place. If he was naturally a loner he would not have gained by the presence of heroes like Abraham. He would have been impervious to influence whether for good or bad. If he was not a loner by nature but merely by circumstances, then in another age he would have sought out kindred spirits and become greater still.
Yet what exactly was Noah supposed to do?
To his rhetorical question, Sacks argues that even if we doubt our ability to convince others we are obligated to try. He cites the following from the Talmud, concerning the tzaddiks of the First Temple destruction, who failed to rise against bad behavior during their time.
“Sovereign of the Universe!” said Justice, “they had the power to protest but did not.”
What is our obligation to others when we experience the world differently from most people?
“Noah walked with God.” R. Yehudah said: It may be compared to a king who had two sons, an older and younger one. He said to the younger one, walk with me; and to the older; come and walk before me. Thus to Abraham, whose spiritual powers were superior, he said: “Walk before Me, and be thou whole-hearted.” But of Noah, whose powers were inferior, it is stated as follows: “Noah walked with God.” R. Nehamiah said, It may be compared to the king’s friend who was sinking in the mire. The king looked and saw him, and said to him: before you sink into the mire walk with me. It is therefore written: “Noah walked with God.” To whom may Abraham be compared? To a king’s friend who saw the king walking through a dark alleyway. His friend seeing him began to show him a light through the window. When the king looked up and saw him he said to him: before you give me light through the window come and give light in front of me. Thus said the Holy One blessed be He: before you give light for Me in Mesopotamia and its neighbors, come and give light before Me in the land of Israel.
Thinking about the world today, the generation we live in, what does it mean to walk before God in contrast to walking with God?
The Sages say that Noah found grace in God’s eye, but that God found Abraham. What did God find in Abraham?