From Noach to Abraham

Why should Abraham be considered greater than Noach?

Rabbi Dr. Chaim E. Schertz,

Rabbi Schertz
Rabbi Schertz
INN: J. Fogel

The juxtaposition in the Torah between the section dealing with Noach and the one dealing with Avraham has naturally caused the Rabbis to analyze and compare the two iconic personalities.  The statement, “Noach was a righteous man, complete in his generation, who walked with God, (B’reisheet 6:9) caused the following dispute. 

Rav Yochanan stated about Noach, “his virtues were manifested in his generation, but not in the other generations.” And Reish Lakish said, “in his generation and certainly in other generations” (i.e. the generation of Abraham.  Sanhedren 108a. 

If we look in the Talmud, Noach’s virtues were openly manifested.  He rebuked his generation for their sinfulness, and strenuously attempted to have them repent for their sins. In addition, he faithfully obeyed God’s instructions about building the Tevah, and warned his neighbors about their impending doom.  He also rescued all animal life to allow the world to be rebuilt.  Thus the position of Reish Lakish is well founded. 

So why and on what basis does Rav Yochanan dispute that position?  

First we must realize that the terminology used by the Torah to describe Noach is virtually identical to that used with reference to Avraham.  

There are two terms used to describe Noach: Tzadik (righteous) and Tamim (Complete).  He was considered a Tzadik in his deeds and complete in his ways.  See Avodah Zara 6a. Indeed he is called Tzadik twice in the Torah. First in Bereisheet 6:9, and once directly by God. “God said to Noach, you and all your family enter the Tevah (ark) for I have seen you as righteous before me in this generation” Id. 7:1. 

The term Tzadik, or a variant of it, is also used with reference to Avraham.  “Abraham believed God (that he would have a natural son) and God considered it as an act of righteousness on his part.  Id. 15:6.  In addition God says, “I know Abraham that he would command his sons and his household after him that they will observe the way of God and do righteousness and justice.” Id. 18:18.  

The second term which applies to both Noach and Avraham is the term Tamim or complete in his ways.  The term is found in 6:9 with reference to Noach and in 17:1 with reference to Avraham.  The term Tamim is normally used to maintain the completeness of the body through the act of circumcision.  According to Jewish tradition, Noach was born already circumcised.  See Avot of Rabbi Nathan, chapt. 2.  Abraham, however, was commanded by God to become circumcised.  

Even if we maintain that the term Tamim refers to proper moral behavior, that term is also used with reference to both.  It is used with reference to Noach in 6:9, and with reference to Avraham in 17:1.  “God appeared to Avram and said to him, I am E-l Sha-ddai, walk before me and be complete. “ 17:1.  We should note, however, that Rashi in 6:1 indicates that Avraham was lauded in this case more than Noach because Noach always needed the assistance of God in order to be righteous, while Avraham could walk on his own before God and be righteous. 

From all this, it seems that Noach was laudatory in his own life for God to find favor with him, and thus we must ask again, why does Rav Yochanan labor so hard to establish a chasm between Noach and Avraham.  

A key to this conundrum may be found in the following Talmudic text:  Rabbi Chanina said, “one who is commanded to fulfill a commandment and does so, is greater than one who is not commanded to fulfill a commandment, but nevertheless does it of his own accord.” Kiddushin 31a.  The Tosafot offer the following explanation for this counterintuitive declaration. 

It seems that this is the reason:  for one who is commanded to do something and does it, is superior because he worries more about fulfilling it correctly and is under greater stress lest he transgresses (the commandment), rather than one who is not commanded. For the one who is not commanded has greater breathing room, for if he wishes he can just abandon the task and not be punished for doing so.  Tosafot, Kol, Kiddushin 31a. 

Abraham is thus much greater than Noach, for he set the future tone for the people of Israel. All people can accept a moral code, and indeed should do so.  Only the people of Israel established their code as a direct response to God.  As such, they become partners with God in the process of creation.  In their lives, they express not only their own will, but in addition, the will of God.  

Abraham’s life was a constant response to the will and command of God.  He and his entire family became circumcised as an expression of establishing a covenant with the almighty.  He recognized that his descendants would fulfill the will of God to establish justice and righteousness in God’s world.  He was ultimately willing to sacrifice the son whom he love more than his own life as an act of obedience to the one true God. It is because of this attitude that Avraham became our first patriarch and the true father of the Jewish people.  

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