Noach and Avraham
"These are the offspring of Noach, Noach was a righteous man, perfect in his generations; Noach walked with God."(1) Noach was the greatest person in his time, the only one who deserved to be spared from the flood. And yet Noach is unfavorably compared to Avraham by the Sages in a number of places.(2) What is the difference between these two great men?
Rashi brings a Midrash that contrasts Avraham and Noach. With regard to Noach, the Torah says "Noach walked with God." This means that he needed help in his service of God. But to Avraham, God says, "Walk before me." This means that Avraham could strengthen himself on his own. The commentaries explain that Avraham was proactive and self-motivated. He did not need external events to stimulate him to serve the Almighty and do kindness. Noach needed external circumstances to push him forward in his righteousness.(3)
Rav Eliyahu Dessler zt"l expands on this idea. He writes that Noach is called "ish tzaddik" (man of righteousness), and Avraham is "ish chessed" (man of kindness). Noach performed incredible acts of kindness in the ark, feeding hundreds of animals for several months. However, says Rav Dessler that this was only tzedek, the right thing to do, meaning that he fulfilled his obligation. It did not stem from an overflowing desire to give, but was rather a reaction to the needs of others. His kindness was reactive in that he only helped people when they came to him or if he felt an obligation to do so.
Avraham, in contrast, did not perform kindness out of obligation, but because of a burning desire to give.(4) His kindness was proactive.
This divergence between Noach and Avraham is not restricted to kindness in the physical realm, but also extends into the spiritual realm. The Seforno writes that Noach did rebuke the people in his generation but he did not go any further. "He did not teach them to know God and how to go in his ways." Consequently, he did not possess enough merit to save the generation.(5) In contrast Avraham went far beyond the call of duty to teach the world to know God.(6) Noach's kindness was reactive.
Why would a person reach the level of reactive kindness but fail to progress to the higher level of giving proactively? The clue to this can be found in Noach's name. We know that a person's name teaches us about his essence. The word 'noach' means 'comfortable.' It is not easy to take responsibility for something without first being called upon to do it. The negative inclination will find numerous excuses to avoid taking on a challenging endeavor when the genuine reason for doing so is desire for comfort.
The great author of Chovos HaLevavos (Duties of the Heart),(7) Rabbeinu Bechaye, reveals that he was subject to this very challenge. He writes in the introduction that after planning to write this work he changed his mind, citing a number of reasons. "I thought my powers too limited and my mind too weak to grasp the ideas. Furthermore, I do not possess an elegant style in Arabic, in which the book would have been written… I feared that I would be undertaking a task which would succeed [only] in exposing my shortcomings…Therefore I decided to drop my plans and revoke my decision." However, he recognized that perhaps his motives were not completely pure. "I began to suspect that I had chosen the comfortable option, looking for peace and quiet. I feared that what had motivated the cancellation of the project had been the desire for self-gratification, which had driven me to seek ease and comfort, to opt for inactivity and sit idly by."
To the eternal benefit of the Jewish people, he decided to write the book. The reasons that he initially cited in support of his decision not to write the book seem fair and logical. But he recognized that, on his level, they were tainted by a desire for comfort. We, too, have plausible reasons why we choose to ignore opportunities to help the Jewish people. But we must be extremely careful to make sure that we are not in fact just being lazy. Imagine how many great works or bold initiatives may never have reached fruition because of laziness.
Another hindrance to proactivity is misplaced trust in God. A person may have the attitude that God will send him his life purpose on a plate. History proves that the great builders in Torah did not have this attitude. They looked at the problems in the world and decided to take action to rectify them without waiting to be told to do so. People such as Rav Aharon Kotler,(8) the Ponevezher Rav(9) and Rebbetzin Sarah Schenirer(10) emulated Avraham and took the initiative to build Torah institutions. These institutions reinforced Torah, and enabled the Jewish people to survive the spiritual onslaught of the Enlightenment and the physical onslaught of the Holocaust.
In our generation, one does not have to look far to find opportunities to improve the word in some form. But he must not wait to be asked to step forward. If he waits, the opportunity may never materialize. God wants us to open our eyes and take action without being prompted to do so.
Noach was a great man but he is not the progenitor of the Chosen People. He did kindness, but only after he was instructed to. He rebuked the people, but only after God had told him to do so as a reactive person, who needed external circumstance to arouse him to action.
By contrast, Avraham did not need to be motivated to serve God. He did not wait for people to come to him in order to teach them Torah. He reached the level of true kindness through great effort. It is incumbent upon us, his descendants, to emulate him and seek and pursue opportunities to make a difference to the Jewish people.
1. Noach, 6:9.
2. For example, Rashi states on this passuk that had Noach been alive in Avraham's generation he would not have been considered a tzaddik. Also see the next Rashi in the verse.
3. See Gur Aryeh on the Passuk; Michtav M'Eliyahu, 2nd Chelek, p.168; Shelah HaKadosh, Parshas Noach, Torah Ohr, 2.Tiferes Shlomo.
4. Michtav M'Eliyahu, 2nd Chelek, p.178.
5. Seforno, Bereishis, 6:8.
6. See Meiri, Avos, 5:2: Lechem Shamayim on Avos (by Rav Yaakov Emden zt"l), 5:2. Seforno, Toldos, 26:5. Chasam Sofer, Hakdama to Yoreh Deah entitled 'Pisuchey Chosam.' Chofetz Chaim in many places; see Chomas Hadas, opening chapters.
7. A classic work of Jewish though that outlines how to develop a relationship with HaShem.
8. One of the leading Rabbis in the first half of the 20th Century - he played a leading role in saving Jews from the Holocaust and founded the great Yeshiva, Lakewood, that is located in New Jersey.
9. The founder of the great Yeshiva, Ponevezh, that is located in Bnei Brak.
10. The founder of the Beis Yaakov movement that provided an educational structure for young Jewish women, and is credited with stemming the secularization of many women in the early part of the 20th Century.