Yom Sheini, 22 Iyyar 5779
Monday, 27 May 2019
Parashat Noach 5776

Rabbi Rene Pfertzel
17th October 2015

Noah ish tsaddik tamim haya bedorotav; et ha-Elohim hit-halekh Noah – Noah was a righteous man; he was blameless in his age; Noah walked with God” (Genesis 6:9 – JPS translation).

Tsaddik and tamim appear here for the first time in the Torah (cf. Sarna’s commentary on Genesis). A Tsaddik is a man whose conduct is beyond reproach, and this quality is reinforced by tamim, a word used for unblemished animals used for sacrifices in the Temple of Jerusalem. Nevertheless, as is very often the case with biblical characters, Noah is far from being a flawless hero. He is said to be “walking with God”, which means that he spent his whole life in full accord with God’s will, and yet, he did not prevent the flood.

Corruption and lawlessness are rapidly spreading all over the earth, and the Creator of all living beings wants to put an end to it. He wishes to make Noah an instrument for survival of mankind, and He tells him about his plan. Noah obeys without questioning God’s plot against humanity. He does not argue, as Abraham will do in the future. He does not pray God to spare his fellow human beings, as Moses will do in the wilderness. And yet, he is called a “righteous, unblemished man”. What kind of righteousness is this? In his Torah commentary, Harvey Fields quotes several commentators of the past.[1]. ·“The Zohar explains that Noah was out to save himself and his family. He did not intervene or speak up for the people of his generation when he was told that they would be destroyed” (ad. loc.). In other words, Noah was completely “walking with God”, following His commandments, living ethically, so that he could feel self-justified. He could have prevented the flood by arguing with his contemporaries, with God, but he was so self-centred, filled with a deep sense of self-righteousness, that he let the catastrophe happen. Harvey Fields quotes a story told by the 18th century Chassidic master Rabbi Elimelech of Lizensk. He “once observed that there are two kinds of ‘righteous’ persons: one who is genuinely ‘righteous’; the other dresses like a ‘righteous’ person in a fur coat. Each of them faces a freezing winter in a different way: one will go out and collect wood for a fire; the other will wrap himself in his fur coat. The one who collects wood lights a fire and invites others to join him. He not only warms himself but others as well. The one who makes himself cozy in his own heavy coat is secure, but those around him will freeze”.·[2].

So, what does it mean to be a righteous person? Is it only by following God’s commandments that one earns this title? Can one be called righteous if s/he does not inspire others, or if s/he does not share information that might save lives? And what about the duty of care, of critical judgment?

It does not come as a surprise that humankind has a strong inclination towards lawlessness and violence. The current situation in the Middle East is a sad reminder of this ever-present possibility. People talk about a third-world war that might have already broken out. I do not share their pessimism, but some radical groups work hard to ignite the cycle of violence, death and destruction. It is the responsibility of our leaders to break this cycle lest, like Noah, they fail all of us and cause the flood to come over us once again. It is the responsibility of everybody to speak out against those whose desire is to destroy our civilisation, not by shutting ourselves off in our ivory tower, or in a closed ark, but by creating a stronger, fairer society that will offer a positive model of living together.

The righteous of today puts his/her life at risk, as Indira Ghandi, the Mahatma, Yitzchak Rabin and Anouar El-Sadate did. Human beings do not treat well those who try to show a different path, but we are in a desperate need for such a righteous person. In the meantime, we are not powerless. In this endeavour, we are partners with God. “It is our duty to praise the Ruler of all, to recognise the greatness of the Creator of first things… Therefore, Almighty God, we put our hope in You. Soon let us witness a time when the world will be set right, and all humanity shall speak out, and all the wicked of the earth shall turn to You”. Aleinu le’shabbei’ach la’Adon ha-kol.


[1]· ·Harvey J. Fields, A Torah Commentary for our Time, (UAHC Press·: New York, 1990, p. 30).

[2]· ·Op. cit. p. 31.