The Torah introduces us to the man who would save humanity from total annihilation in the Flood with the words, “These are the descendants of Noah: Noah was a righteous man, pure in his generations...” (Genesis 6:9).
The word בְּדֹרֹתָיו (in his generations) seems to superfluous: after all, in whose generations could Noah be righteous and wholesome if not in his own?
The Talmud (Sanhedrin 108a) records two contradictory opinions of the inference of the word בְּדֹרֹתָיו (in his generations). Rabbi Yochanan interprets it as denigrating Noah: compared to his generations – the generations of idolatry and violent robbery – he was righteous; in normal generations he would not have stood out.
Reish Lakish takes the opposite view, interpreting it as praising Noah: even in his generations, with all the all-pervasive negative influence surrounding him since birth, he still remained righteous; how much more righteous would he have been had he lived in normal generations.
Now Rabbi Yochanan’s view needs some explaining: since the Torah states explicitly that “Noah was a righteous man, pure,” why does Rabbi Yochanan seek to find some hint that he was anything less? Granted, the seemingly-superfluous word בְּדֹרֹתָיו needs an explanation – but in this case, why not take Reish Lakish’s approach and interpret it to Noah’s credit?
Indeed, the major commentators find nothing but praise. Says the Ibn Ezra: “‘In his generations’ – [he was righteous] both in the generation of the flood and in the subsequent generations, because he lived until Abraham was 58 years old”. And the Ramban comments: “In my opinion, the correct explanation according to the simple meaning is that he was the only tzaddik in those generations; there was no one who was righteous, no one who was wholesome apart from him”.
So what possible hint does the Torah provide to justify Rabbi Yochanan’s interpretation?
The standard explanations are that unlike Abraham, who protested G-d’s judgement to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18:23-33), Noah made no protest when G-d told him that He planned to destroy the whole of humanity.
And that unlike Abraham, who brought thousands of people to belief in the One true G-d, Noah did not influence even one single person in the world to repent. True, he saved himself and his immediate family from the Flood – but that was all.
Having said this, I offer another observation of Noah’s deficiency:
After a year on board the ark, Noah sent forth a raven, which returned because it found nowhere to land (Genesis 8:7).
He subsequently send forth a dove, with the same result (vs. 8-9). Then, seven days later, he again sent forth the dove: “And the dove came to him at evening-time, and behold! – she had a plucked olive-leaf in her beak. Thus Noah knew that the waters had lessened from on the earth” (v. 11).
But Noah’s interpretation was faulty. “From where did the dove bring this leaf? – “She brought it from the Land of Israel, because it had not been inundated in the Flood” (Midrash Lekach Tov, Vayikra Rabbah 31:10, Shir ha-Shirim Rabbah 1:4 et al.); or more specifically, she brought the olive-leaf from an olive-tree on the Mount of Olives (Targum Yonatan, Genesis 8:11).
That is to say – this olive-leaf did not indicate any lessening of the flood-waters: it came from the Land of Israel (specifically from Jerusalem), which had never been affected by the Flood.
Noah should have realised this. He should have appreciated the significance of a leaf from the Land of Israel. He should have realised that an olive-tree which had been subjected to the boiling flood-waters (Rosh Hashanah 12a, Sanhedrin 108b, Zevachim 113b) and been submerged for a year would not be putting forth any fresh leaves. He should have understood that this leaf came from Israel.
But Noah failed to appreciate its true significance. And that indicated something fundamentally defective about him. If he was so not attuned to the significance of the Land of Israel, then even though he was “a righteous man, wholesome in his generations”, Rabbi Yochanan perceived that something was wrong.
Rashi (commentary to Genesis 6:9) paraphrases the Talmud: “‘Noah was a righteous man, pure in his generations’ – compared with his generation he was righteous, but had he been in Abraham’s generation, he would not have been considered as anything”.
Why does Rashi suddenly bring in Abraham’s generation? The Talmud, after all, makes no mention whatsoever of Abraham or his generation.
– Maybe Rashi wants to call one of the fundamental differences between Abraham and Noah to our attention: God’s first-ever call to Abraham (with which next week’s parashah, Lech Lecha, begins) is for Abraham to leave his homeland and go to the Land of Israel.
Abraham merited inheriting the Land of Israel. Noah didn’t. So as righteous and wholesome as Noah was “in his generations”, because he failed to appreciate the unique qualities of the Land of Israel, “had he been in Abraham’s generation”, compared with Abraham who did appreciate the Land of Israel, “he would not have been considered as anything”.