Noach | A Comparison of Noach and Moshe
Summarized by Ron Kleinman
In Devarim Rabba (11:3) we learn: "'Many daughters have performed virtue, but you have exceeded them all' - to whom does this refer? To Moshe, who rose higher [in prophecy] than anyone else ... Another explanation [for this verse] is as follows: Noach said to Moshe, 'I am greater than you, for I was saved from [among] the generation of the Flood.' Moshe answered him, 'I am more elevated than you. You saved yourself but lacked the power to save your generation. But I saved myself as well as my generation, which was deserving of annihilation following the sin of the Golden Calf.' On what basis [do we arrive at this explanation]? It is written (Shemot 32): 'And God regretted the evil which He had decreed that He would do to His nation.' To what may we compare this? To two ships in the sea, each with its captain. One saved himself but failed to save his ship, while the other saved himself as well as his ship. Who is worthy of being praised? Surely the one who saved himself as well as his ship! Similarly, Noach saved no one but himself, while Moshe saved himself and his generation. Therefore we say, 'You have exceeded them all.'"
In this week's parasha we read (Bereishit 9:20), "And Noach settled down (va-yechal) to be a man of the earth, and he planted a vineyard." Chazal explain that the word 'va-yechal' means that he 'became profane' ("asa atzmo chulin"). We may ask: how is it that Noach, who in his early days was termed a 'righteous man ... perfect in his generation,' becomes a 'man of the earth,' makes his life profane, discards his garments (i.e. his distinction) and rolls about naked like an animal on the ground?
This verse may serve as the basis for those commentaries who interpret the description of Noach as being 'perfect in his generation' to his detriment, insofar as "the latter part of his life revealed his true essence" - a man of the earth, rolling about naked - "more accurately than the earlier part" - when he was not truly a righteous man, as we may infer from God's reflection: "For I regret that I created them, and Noach..." He was as guilty as the rest of society, but for some reason he "found favor in God's eyes" and his sins were temporarily forgiven.
What is the source of the distinction between Noach and Moshe? Possibly they had differing levels of spiritual capability - Moshe was blessed with something which Noach did not have. This would explain the Midrash: "Moshe said to Noach, 'You did not have the power [i.e. the potential or the ability] to save your generation.'"
However, it may be that the difference between them lay not in their capability but rather in their will. Noach was able but unwilling - he demonstrated spiritual apathy and lack of caring for his generation. Noach was quite content living up to the difference between himself - the "perfect, righteous one," and them - the corrupt masses. His ego lifted him above them, strengthened him. Had he lived in a generation containing other righteous men - in Avraham's generation, for example - "he would not have been considered anything at all." And what is the proof? His entire generation was wiped out; he alone remained in the world - and began behaving as a simple "man of the earth," devoid of any specialness.
One of my students once said, "While I sit in Yeshiva, I feel a certain lowering of my motivation. When I am outside of the Yeshiva, on the other hand, in a different - secular - society, I feel a greater motivation, and experience a sense of mission. There I feel a certain sense of obligation." This is not a commendable perception. Even when we find ourselves in a community where the challenges and the animosities are smaller than they are in the secular society, "outside," we have to feel a perpetual push to grow and develop. And outside, in the secular society, we have to actively prevent ourselves from entertaining feelings of pride. Our influence must be felt through personal example, by the radiation of spirituality to our surroundings; not by cultivating our ego and feelings of superiority.
(Originally delivered at Seuda Shelishit, Shabbat Parashat Noach 5746.
Translated by Kaeren Fish.)