There is a traditional debate about the very first verse of this morning’s Torah portion, and at the heart of the debate is the question of the quality of Noah’s character. The verse tells us נח איש תמים היה בדורותיו – Noah was righteous man, in his generation. That can be interpreted in two ways – he was righteous – even in a generation where no one else was! Or you could understand that to mean ‘in his generation he was righteous!’ – but in another generation, maybe not so much!
The truth is there is evidence for both sides of the argument. He was clearly righteous. God chose Noah from among all the other people on earth to warn him about the flood. He listens to God’s commands, he builds the ark, he guides his family and the animals into a post-diluvian world, a world after the destruction of the flood. All righteous behaviors, all proof of the quality of Noah’s character.
But Noah also had some problematic moments. He is the patriarch of a family that seems to have some serious issues. He drinks to the extent that it has a serious and negative impact on his life. And perhaps most troubling of all, Noah never warns other people about what is about to happen. Nor does he challenge God in terms of God’s plans to destroy the earth. We are waiting for Noah’s Abraham moment – the moment when he says to God “I don’t agree with this, it is wrong!” Or “Are you telling me no one else on the earth is worth saving? Save someone else, too!” But that moment never arrives.
Knowing what you know now about Noah, both the good and the bad, the pluses and the minuses, lets take a quick vote. You will have two choices, please only vote once. Your choices will be that Noah was purely righteous, regardless of his generation, or that he was a flawed person, and was only considered righteous because everyone else in his generation was worse. OK – how many of you would say Noah was purely righteous? And how many of you would say Noah was fairly flawed, and only righteous when compared with others who were worse?
Now let me ask another question – of those two Noahs, which do you prefer?
I have to say the I actually prefer the flawed Noah, and in fact I think it is the flawed Noah who is more in line with the general way that biblical characters are presented. If you think about any other biblical character – from Moses to Abraham to Sarah to King David and on and on, any other major character, you don’t have to look too far to find significant flaws. Moses struggles with anger issues, let alone the fact that he kills another man in his youth. Abraham is unaware of the dynamics in his own home that are tearing his family apart. Sarah is jealous and hostile towards Hagar. David is manipulative, steals another man’s wife, and ultimately arranges for that man to be killed. These characters are not only flawed, not only imperfect, but deeply so. And Noah is right in line with all of them.
But let me tell why I actually prefer that. And to do that I would like to shift genres for a moment, and talk about comic books. (Just another from of literature!) I grew up reading and collecting comic books, and I always preferred Marvel comics to DC comics. DC was the line with? – Superman and Batman and the Flash and Wonder Woman. And Marvel had? – the X-Men and Spiderman and the Fantastic 4 and the Avengers. The symbol of DC comics was Superman. Superman was perfect – תמים היה בדורותיו – perfect in his generation and every generation. He was impervious to harm, he had strength beyond measure, he could fly through the air, he had x-ray vision.
But the symbol of Marvel comics was Spiderman. Spiderman was stronger than the average person, and faster, but he was by no means impervious. He didn’t have X-ray vision, he couldn’t fly – he had to use those web cartridges taped to his wrists, which would occasionally run out. Superman was noble, moral, ethical, never had a doubt as to why he was doing what he was doing, never had a doubt about anything.
Spiderman was filled with doubts. Doubts about whether he should even use his powers. He worried, he failed, he dropped out of school, and then struggled to hold on to a job, and he couldn’t keep a girlfriend.
And as a kid I looked at Superman, and I couldn’t relate one bit. Perfect, I think, is boring. But also perfect is not me. But Spiderman, with his doubts and his struggles, with his failures and foibles, that was the kind of hero to whom I could relate. I knew I would never climb walls, or swing from webs on skyscrapers. But I also knew I would fail, there would be moments when it wouldn’t work out, I knew my character needed work. Spiderman was my guy!
And that is why I liked the flawed Noah. That is why it has always made sense to me that the Bible’s heroes are mistake prone and emotional, that they struggle with jealousy and anger, that they sometimes – maybe even often – don’t treat one another well, that they repeatedly fail to understand what God wants of them and to follow God’s commands. If I opened up the Torah and every character was perfect, completely moral and ethical, righteous and just, kind and wise – go through you list – I would say who are these people? They are not my people, and they are not like me. But when I see them struggle and fail, when I read about Moses’ self-doubt, or Abraham’s insensitivty, or Noah’s selfishness – I say boy, that looks awfully familiar. And when I see myself in the text and in those characters I can not only relate to them, I can also learn from them.
So in Moses’ spiritual growth I can see hope for myself and a path to follow. In Abraham’s deep faith I can find inspiration. And through Noah’s story I can understand in a deeper way what it means to face the difficult challenges of life with determination and courage.
That is why we’ve been reading these stories for some three thousand years. May we come to them again and again, in this new year and every year, seeing in their heroes our own lives and struggles and flaws, and also the potential we all have to grow in soul, and to live with courage and faith.