By Rabbi Yitzchok D. Frankel
Agudath Israel of the Five Towns
He was perfectly righteous in his generations.
Noach was a tzaddik, as the Torah clearly says about him. He earned many praiseworthy titles. But there is one title that seems most appropriate to Noach, which seems to fit him perfectly—yet he did not receive it!
We know that Avraham Avinu is called Ivri, “the one who passed to the other side.” This term implies that the whole world was on one side while he was on the other. What about Noach? If there was anyone in history who is perceived as standing up alone against an entire world, it was surely Noach. He should be described as Ivri. All of humanity was on one side and Noach on the other.
However, if the Torah does not call Noach by the title Ivri, there is a reason. In order to understand this point, we need to understand what the idea of Ivri really means. Avraham Avinu did not acquire this special distinction of Ivri just because he refrained from doing what everyone else did. He did much more than that; he created a unique environment for himself. Avraham Avinu extended his spiritual boundaries and surrounded himself with a force that protected him. This prevented him from being impacted, influenced, or in any way “acculturated” by society around him.
In other words, Avraham Avinu did not merely do what was appropriate. He put up an impenetrable spiritual barrier around himself. This enabled him to grow and develop, to become the first of the great Avos of the Jewish people. He totally refused to be impacted in any way by the world around him. For instance, he took immediate action to separate himself completely from Lot when he saw that Lot was not acting appropriately. Avraham Avinu did not waste any time with Lot. He said to him right away: “Please separate from me. If to the left, I will go to the right. And if to the right, I will go to the left” (Bereishis 13:9).
Avraham Avinu did not allow himself to be in the proximity of evil if he felt this would have any sort of negative impact on him. Noach, on the other hand, was affected by the world at large. The Noach that we see at the beginning of the story is not the Noach that we see at the end. This is readily seen from the incident that took place when he left the Teivah.
Noach begins his relationship with Hashem with what is written at the end of Parashas Bereishis: “Noach found favor in the eyes of Hashem” (Bereishis 6:8). Noach acted according to Hashem’s will. Therefore, he is described as perfectly righteous! At the same time, we cannot say that Noach was not impacted by the spiritual state of his generation, because we find that when Noach comes out of the Teivah, right after building an altar and bringing offerings that pleased Hashem, he takes a respite. As the Torah says: “And Noach, who was a man of the earth, began to plant a vineyard” (Bereishis 9:20).
Rashi comments that Noach’s choice to first plant a vineyard expressed a mundane approach. Noach is now relieved of the strain he has been under all these years and has time to sit back and relax. He is not being challenged by anyone else around him. He does not have to stand strong to protect himself.
Now, let us take a good look: Who is Noach when there is no one else around? The Torah tells us clearly: “a man of the earth.” From an ish Elokim, a man of G‑d who spoke to Hashem and whom Hashem spoke to and instructed, from a perfect tzaddik, he devolved to “a man of the earth” showing mundane interests. How did that happen? It could only have happened because Noach allowed his defenses to fall. He allowed a certain small amount of antediluvian influence to seep into the fibers of his being. However minute the amount was, he let it in. He allowed himself to be influenced by the generation that had preceded him, by the generation that had been destroyed—and that influence caused Noach to fall.
This is why Noach was not deserving of the title of Ivri. We cannot say unequivocally that he was on one side, while the entire world was on the other. For a certain part of him was still on their side, connected to the previous generation.
Avraham Avinu, however, distinguished himself by reaching out to idol worshippers on his own terms. Rather than go to their locale to pursue kiruv, he brought them in under his roof. In this way, he ensured that his contacts with the outside world were governed by his rules, protecting his values of propriety and holiness. This is what made Avraham Avinu the archetypal Ivri.
Rabbi Frankel can be reached at email@example.com. At local stores: Machat shel Yad Beraishis.