Rabbi Michael Rosensweig
Rabbi Michael Rosensweig

The Spiritual Legacy of Noah and Avraham

The conclusion of parshat Noah marks the transition from Noah to Avraham Avinu. Hazal were intrigued by the relative stature of these two great religious personalities, noting that assessments of Noah's spiritual achievements range from high praise to implied criticism.

It is interesting to note that the personalities of Avraham and Noah represent significant halakhic designations. Avraham is not only the father of the Jewish nation-- av hamon goyim--, but his special qualities, especially his commitment to hesed, constitute a spiritual-genetic legacy for his descendants. T he Talmud (Yevamot 79a) indicates that one should suspect the lineage of any Jew who does not exhibit the basic humane qualities associated with Avraham Avinu. Rambam codifies these sentiments in the concluding halakhot of hilkhot Matnot Aniyim (10:1-2). Although the source for the non-Jewish obligations demanded by the Torah is to be found in connection with Adam ha-rishon's sojourn in Gan Eden (Bereshit 2:16; Sanhedrin 56b), these obligations are identified with the personality of Noah, referred to as the Noahide laws, their adherents earning the appellation of ben-Noah.

Undoubtedly, a closer look at the personalities and contributions of Avraham and Noah will illuminate the different agendas and legacies of Noahide and Jewish law.

Hazal speculate whether Noah's spiritual attainments would not have been even more impressive had he lived in Avraham's generation. It is important, however, to note that even those who argue that Noah would have benefited from that more conducive environment appear to be suggesting that he would have been positively affected by that exposure, but do not project that Noah's influence in shaping the destiny of those around him would have been enhanced. The contrast to Avraham's pivotal role is stark. Avraham is credited as the father of monotheism, having single-handedly rediscovered the Divine presence. Moreover, he initiated and sustained the quest for spirituality, motivating others to join his mission, literally transforming their lives. Hazal note that the Torah speaks of the souls that Avraham created- "ve-et ha-nefesh asher asu be-haran" (Bereshit 12:5). His willingness to undertake the most painful and personal sacrifices --reflected in two formulations of "lekh lekhah" (Bereshit 12:1; 22:2) --to sever his link to the past embodied by his father's home, and to abandon his long-anticipated future in the episode of akedat Yitzhak -- reflect this absolute commitment to Hashem.

Noah's commitment is characterized as "et ha-Elokim hithalekh Noah"(Bereshit 7:1), while Avraham's is described as "asher hithalakhti lefanav". According to the midrash, cited by Rashi (7:7), Noah required some impetus to enter into the tevah, the symbol of his spiritual journey, while Avraham was always self-motivated. Noah's legacy focuses on his own status and survival-"eleh toledot Noah, Noah" etc., while Avraham's active role in shaping the values and destiny of his progeny - "eleh toledot Yitzhak ben Avraham, Avraham holid et Yitzhak" - are accented. Avraham's passionate plea on behalf of Sedom, one particular society whose values stood in total contradiction to his own world-view, is often sharply contrasted with Noah's silent reaction to the doomed fate of an entire world. While Noah hedged his bets and is sometimes characterized as "mekatnei emunah", Avraham's approach is characterized by simple faith (Bereshit 15:6), idealism and enthusiasm. "Vayashkem Avraham ba-boker" (Bereshit 22:3) signifies zerizut (alacrity) in approaching the akedah, notwithstanding the fact that it was undoubtedly his most difficult spiritual and emotional challenge.

Noah is essentially a crisis manager and survivor, albeit one entrusted with the crucial role of ensuring continuity. The only way he can respond to the crisis of "ketz kol basar ba lefanai" is by insulating himself in the tevah and riding out the storm. Avraham Avinu, on the other hand, is an idealistic visionary, passionately devoted to tranforming the world into an arena for Hashem's kedushah - accenting "elokei ha-aretz", fully committed to spreading the spritually ambitious teachings of the Torah. He employs the values of hesed in arguing on behalf of Sedom, and in implementing his rescue of Lot, though he had chosen the lifestyle antithetical to that of Avraham's- "vehu yoshev be-Sedom"(Bereshit 14:12).

Noah's limited spiritual ambition and more circumscribed role is reflected by his conduct in the aftermath of the crisis when he was faced with the opportunity to initiate and shape the new world. In many respects, he is unable to transcend the limitations of his environment and his past. Instead of seizing a singular opportunity to symbolically and substantively inaugarate a new order, he proceeds, after bringing a korban of thanksgiving, to plant a vineyard and succumb to its effects, with disastrous consequences. The contrast to Avraham Avinu, the maximalist man of destiny who never rests on his laurals, achieving new spiritual heights as he is constantly challenged and tested - "va-yehi ahar ha-devarim ha-elah" (Bereshit 22:1, 20 ; Avot 5:3)-, is manifest.

These two perspectives are reflected in the contrast between the full complement of halakhic obligation and the Noahide code. The 613 commandments relate to and regulate every dimension of human life, expanding the concept and scope of the sacred and suffusing the mundane with sancitiy. The more limited seven-obligation Noahide code does effectively insure significant social stability, a standard of monotheism, as well as a measure of sanctity in other realms of life, but it does not approximate the pervasive and ambitious program of the halakhah. The midrash (Mishpatim Rabbah, nos. 6, 18 ) contrasts the two systems in various ways, and emphasizes that the greater scope of halakhic obligation impacts upon the quality and significance of even those aspects which the two systems share in common. While Noah's role as a survivor who bridged two worlds was indispensable, it is the transition to Avraham Avinu, the embodiment of spiritual initiative and idealism, that marks the true beginning of Jewish history.

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