05 Oct THE HERO FOR THE SIMPLE PEOPLE: THANK GOODNESS, NOACH WAS NO SAINT
HENRY KISSINGER’S SUIT
There is the old Jewish anecdote about former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger who decides to make for himself a custom made beautiful three-piece suit of the finest material. During his next trip to Italy, he has himself measured by a world-renown designer, who subsequently gives him the material for his suit.
When he arrives in Paris and presents the material to the skilled tailor, the man measures his body and says: “Sorry, Mr. Kissinger, but a man your size needs at least another two inches of material.”
Surprised, Dr. Kissinger continues his journey to London. There, the tailor says, “I am sorry, Mr. Secretary of State, but to turn this into a suite for your physique, I need another three inches of the material.”
Disappointed, he arrives in Beijing. There the widely acclaimed Chinese tailor remarks, “I really don’t understand what you were thinking, Mr. Kissinger. Your body is far larger than this material. We need another five inches.”
An angry Dr. Kissinger arrives in Tel Aviv. He presents the material to a local Jewish tailor. The tailor measures him and says: “You actually don’t need so much material, but I will cut off some of it and will turn the remainder of it into a stunning suit.”
Kissinger is astonished. “Can you explain to me this enigma,” he asks the tailor. “I have traveled the world, and everybody claims that I need much more material. What is going on here?”
“Oh, it’s quite simple,” the Israeli tailor responds. “In Italy, you are a big man; in Paris, you are even a bigger man; in London you are a great man, and in Beijing the you are a giant.
“Here in Israel, you are a small man.”
THE DEBATE ON NOAH’S PERSONA
What is nothing but a classic Jewish joke becomes reality when it comes to one of the most important figures in the Hebrew Bible—the man who single-handedly saved civilization: Noah. What the tailor told Kissinger is what we Jews actually do to Noah. We cut him down half-his-size, which is both astounding and problematic.
The Torah states in the opening of this week’s portion:
This is the history of Noach. Noach was a righteous man; he was wholesome in his generation; Noach walked with G-d.
The Talmud,and Rashi, ever sensitive to nuance, take note of the fact that the words, “in his generation” are superfluous. Obviously Noach lived and functioned in his generation. Why could the Torah not say simply “Noach was a righteous man, perfect was he; Noach walked with G-d?”
The Talmud offers two opposing explanations. In the words of Rashi:
Among the sages, there are those who interpret this as praise of Noach: If he was righteous in his [corrupt] generation, certainly he would have been even more righteous had he lived in a generation of righteous people. Others interpret it negatively: In relation to his wicked generation he was righteous; had he been in Abraham’s generation he would not have amounted to anything.
Who was Noach? is the question. Was he really a man of extraordinary stature or just a cut above the rest? Did he match up with other gigantic heroes of the Hebrew Bible or was he just your average good Samaritan? Did G-d save him because he was a “perfect tzaddik,” or was he simply in the right place, at the right time, and there was nobody better?
WHY DENIGRATE A HERO?
Yet there is something disturbing about this discussion. The Torah is clearly trying to highlight Noach’s virtue. “But Noah found favor in the eyes of G-d,” is how the previous portion concludes. Then, we have the above verse: “This is the history of Noach. Noach was a righteous man; he was wholesome in his generation; Noach walked with G-d.” later in the portion G-d says to Noach: “I have found you righteous before Me in this generation.” G-d, clearly, is trying to extoll Noach. What drove some Rabbis to cut him down?
Besides, when you can choose a complimentary interpretation and perspective, what drives some to choose a negative and condescending interpretation? It seems like such such an un-Jewish thing to do.
What is more, Noach is the only person in the entire Tanach who is called a Tzaddik, a perfectly righteous individual. G-d tells Noach: “I have found you to be a tzaddik before me in this generation.”And we, the Jews, say: Yes, but not really…
What is going on here?
There are various interpretations. One of my favorite ones was presented by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson of blessed memory.  Not only were the Rabbis not trying to minimize Noach’s virtues, the Rebbe explained; they actually wanted to highlight his praises even more. Equally important, they were trying to teach us all a transformative lesson.
WHO CAN CHANGE THE WORLD?
What did Noach accomplish? He saved all mankind. In the absence of Noach, humanity would have become extinct soon after it began. Single-handedly he ensured the continuity of life on earth. He is the man who builds an ark, rescues all living organisms and ensures our world would survive.
An achievement indeed, if there was ever one.
And who is the individual who achieves this feat? A person called by the Torah “a man of the earth.”The only story the Torah tells us about Noach, outside of constructing the Ark and spending a year in it during the great Flood, is that he was a farmer; he planted a vineyard, became intoxicated, and exposed himself. That’s all. The last thing we hear about him is that he lay there in his tent, drunk and bare.
The Rabbis deduce from the text that “Noach, also, was of those people who were wanting in faith: he believed and he did not believe that the Flood would come, and he would not enter the Ark until the waters forced him to do so.”
Noach was a fine man, who lived a decent, moral life, tried to do what G-d wanted, but was not without his flaws, doubts, and struggles. Compared to Abraham he would not amount to much.
But look what this simple fellow achieved! In a society dripping with greed and temptation, Noach held to his morals, walked with G-d, and swam against the tide, saving the planet from the tide of destruction. Civilization survived not because of a towering, titanic figure; but because of a simple man who had the courage to live morally when everyone around him behaved despicably.
Remarkably, by degrading Noach and stating that in other generations Noach would be eclipsed, the Rabbis turned him into the most inspiring figure, someone who serves as a model for all of us ordinary men and women. Noach is my hero, the hero of the ordinary cut-of-the-mill individual who is no great thinker, warrior, leader, or man of transcendence. By explaining the biblical text the way they did, the Sages turned Noach into a symbol for us ordinary people, who appreciate a fine cup of wine and a little schnaps, how we can make a difference in people’s lives.
The message of Noach is life changing. You don’t need to be an Abraham or a Moses to transform the world. Noach was just another kid on the block; but look what he did! With your own courage not to toe the line of corruption, fakeness, and falsehood, with a little gentleness, friendliness, compassion, kindness and goodness you can save lives, ignite sparks, and create an “ark” of sanity amidst a raging flood.
Noach was not a saint? Thank goodness. I have heard enough about saints in my life; now tell me about real people, who struggle with trauma, fear, doubt and pain. Tell me about the guy whose IQ was not 180; he was not valedictorian of his school; he did not get a full scholarship to Oxford; he was not a tycoon or bestselling author. He was not a guru or a holy man. He was not the greatest warrior, thinker, artist or leader. He was just a guy trying to do the right thing when everyone around him descended to greed and apathy. And look what he accomplished.
In the presence of great moral giants, he might be eclipsed, the Talmud says. Standing near Abraham he would appear insignificant. And that is exactly what made him so significant! He set a standard for those of us who appear in our own eyes as insignificant.
I get frustrated reading some biographies published about rabbis and leaders. They are “cookie cutter” biographies, in which every one of them was born a holy genius. At the age of six he knew the entire Tanach by heart, and at the age of twelve he mastered the Talmud, his mother had to force him to eat. There is almost no trace of struggle, failure, crisis, doubt, anxiety, temptation, confusion, adversity, and the winding viscidities of the path toward individual self-discovery. Beside it being a dishonest portrayal, it deprives the biographies from having educational value. How can I try to emulate a flawless and brilliant saint?
So today, decide to emulate Noach: A simple man who was true to his soul and his G-d. In your own way, stand up to lies, greed, and promiscuity. Become a beacon of light, love and hope. Construct an ark where others can find shelter from a flood of pain and insanity. Stop giving the excuse that you are just a regular guy, minding your own business. All of us can be Noach’s.
“I’m only one, but I am one. I can’t do everything but I can do something, and what I can do, I ought to do.”