Parshat Noach begins by telling us that “Noach was a righteous man, perfect in his generations” (Bereishit 6:9), and though many take these words on face value, Rav Yochanan understands that the words ‘in his generations’ teach us that while Noach was considered righteous in his generation, he would not have been regarded as a righteous person had he lived in a different generation (see Sanhedrin Page 108a). In response to this remark, numerous commentaries have tried to identify the possible flaw in Noach’s attitude of behaviour, and one such answer can be found in the Zohar (Hashmatot 1:254b).
According to the Zohar, an extraordinary dialogue took place between God and Noach once the flood had ended. After the waters had subsided, Noach was told to leave the ark, and upon exiting, he looked around and saw the terrible destruction all around. Immediately, Noach began to weep, crying out, “Lord of the Universe! You should have had mercy on Your creatures!”.
To this, God replied, “Foolish shepherd! Now you are complaining! Earlier I told you, ‘I have seen that you are righteous in this generation’ (Bereishit 7:1); I warned you, ‘I am about to bring a flood upon the earth to destroy all life’ (Bereishit 6:17). And why did I tell you all this? So that you would pray for the world! Now that the world is destroyed, you are opening your mouth before Me with prayers and supplications?!”
According to this explanation, the true failing of Noach was that he did not seize the opportunity to save humanity. Noach was given the chance to pray and possibly save the world, but Noach was silent. As Rabbi Sacks explains in his book ‘Lessons in Leadership’, Noach ‘failed the test of collective responsibility’ because, ‘it is not enough to be righteous if that means turning our backs on a society that is guilty of wrongdoing’. Instead, ‘we must take a stand. We must protest. We must register dissent even if the probability of changing minds is small. That is because the moral life is a life we share with others’.
Noach was most certainly righteous, in the sense that he deserved to be saved from the flood. But Noach failed to take the opportunity to speak up, and in so doing, he demonstrated to God that he was not a leader.
In the speech delivered upon being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, Elie Weisel observed that ‘there may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest’. Noach failed to protest against the loss of life, as did many others in this and previous generations. Our task is to speak up against all forms of abuse, violence and injustice, because, as Rabbi Sacks so beautifully explained, the moral life is a life we share with others.