By Rabbi Steve Greenberg
Noah and Abraham are both paragons of righteousness. While both characters are deemed virtuous, it is not the similarity of these two moral giants that is highlighted by the biblical text and its interpreters, but their difference.
Noah’s righteousness is seen as relative and limited, while Abraham’s is essential and full. What drives this comparative assessment might seem to emerge from their very different reactions to human evil. Noah distinguishes himself in detachment from wrongdoing; Abraham actively stands for fairness. Noah accepts while Abraham bargains; Noah obeys while Abraham questions.
When I was studying the Noah story for the first time in yeshiva my rebbe, Rabbi Moshe Besdin, used a sweet Yiddish locution to describe Noah. Noah, he said, was a “tzaddik im peltz,” a righteous man in a fur coat. There are two sorts of righteous people, he would say. The first is like a person who puts on a fur coat when it’s cold while the second lights a fire so that everyone can come close and share the heat and light. Noah escapes the cold, Abraham spreads the warmth.
No doubt, Noah comes off badly when placed beside Abraham in this way. But I noticed something odd this time while reviewing the story. A careful read exposes a difference in the sort of interactive stance God takes in both stories.
Perhaps the difference in responses blamed on Noah is at least as much about God.
When God first speaks to Noah it is in a decisive tone: “And God said to Noah: ‘I have decided to put an end to all flesh, for the earth is filled with lawlessness’” (Genesis 6:13). The die appears to be cast here. Once a decision is made on high what role is there for mere flesh and blood to play? It does seem that given the decision and specificity of the command to build an ark, so long, wide and high and fill it with animals, what is there to do but comply?
Whereas regarding Sodom, God actively makes space for Abraham to involve himself in the process of judgment.
“Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do? Since Abraham is to become a great and populous nation and all the nations of the earth to bless themselves by him? For I have singled him out that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is just and right (Genesis 18:18-19).
It seems that no final decision has been made in regard to Sodom. God is still exploring the factual reality and possible responses. “ I will go down and see whether they have acted altogether according to the outcry that has come up to me, and if not I will take note” (Genesis 18:20-21).
It appears that a cry has registered, but it’s seriousness and whether heaven’s reaction is called for is not yet certain. God shares with Abraham neither a conclusion nor any request for Abraham to act in any way. Why would God share this piece of information if not to invite questions? This is exactly what Abraham understands and why he engages God’s in the famous negotiation around how many virtuous people, tzaddikim, it would take to save the city.
Seen from this angle, the two are like brothers separated in age by many years but reared by the same father. One son parented by a young father and the other by the same man when he is older and wiser. Noah suffers from a parent desperate for both perfection and control; Abraham learns from a parent, who stands against evil, but is ready to offer clemency if there is a path for change. This deity is open to being challenged and eager to mentor.
The text is sharing with us both the story of human moral growth and but also how our perception of God and goodness can shape more and less robust forms of virtue, more and less mature and balanced efforts for achieving goodness.
Moral challenges abound around us, and most of them are not between good and evil. Most are between competing notions of God and goodness.
We can hear God commanding us to be the sons of light fighting against the sons’ darkness or we can hear God urging us to be among the ten (or 10,000) who do the work of virtue among the people to make things better. We can sequester and detach ourselves from the evil of the world to protect a saving remnant or we can risk, connect, invest, and work hard for the creation of an embracing and pragmatic goodness.
Were Rabbi Besdin still with us, he would remind us that while there may still be circumstances when a nice fur coat is in order….these days, and especially these days….we need to hear a more seasoned and mature Divine voice and follow Abraham’s lead to take off the coat and start a bonfire to spread warmth and light to all.