Noah: Good Enough

The young man who’s celebrating bar mitzvah this week at my shul has an interesting take on Noah. Now, the rabbis who wrote the classic midrashim already recognized the ambiguous nature of the Torah’s praise of Noah: “Noah was a righteous man, faultless in his generation.” (Genesis 6:9) Did this mean that even in his wicked generation, he managed to live as a righteous man? Or did it mean that in a regular generation (can we hope that ours is such a one?), he wouldn’t have stood out, but in his generation, his ordinary decency made him extraordinary?

The young man with whom I’m working suggested that maybe it was neither of these. Maybe Noah actually had some major faults, he said, and asked: What if the reason Noah failed to participate in the hamas — the lawless violence — of his generation was due to being drunk, or maybe lazy? While everybody else was out being lawless and cruel, perhaps he was at home in a stupor, not interacting with anyone.

One could even make a little argument in favor of Noah being a drunk — after all, practically the first thing he did after the whole horrendous experience of the Flood was plant a vineyard, make wine, and get so drunk that he lay around undressed, exposing himself to the ridicule of his son Ham. (See Genesis chapter 9.) The idea of “lazy” is harder to fathom: Building a boat the size of one and a half football fields, then tending to all those animals for nearly a year (just the food and water alone would have required superhuman feats from the 8-person crew), was not the work of a lazy person.

But it’s an intriguing notion that this young man brings up. One way to understand it is that even one’s sins and missteps could have positive resultsIt’s kind of a reassuring idea: As we bumble our way through life, not doing much of anything perfectly, there are a lot of things that we do “well enough” that they bear good fruit. Even when they look to us like we’ve totally messed up.

Another possible conclusion is an idea that I think it’s very important to hold on to: The idea that a flawed tool can still do good work. It’s a very Jewish way of looking at humanity. We are not expected to be perfect. None of our ancestors were perfect. None of our great leaders were perfect. But Abraham and Sarah, in all their imperfection, still merited to become the first parents of the Jewish people. Moses and David, who each sinned, nevertheless are remembered “for the good.” Judging from his behavior after the Flood, Noah was nobody’s saint. Nevertheless, he was found righteous enough to merit becoming caretaker of the Ark and its precious cargo.

When we despair of attaining perfection, or see only our faults, let’s remember that we are capable of accomplishing great good just as we are — despite our faults, or maybe sometimes because of them.


This drashah first appeared in the Jewish World newspaper in Albany.