It is difficult to imagine the scenario that confronted Noah at the onset of this week’s torah portion. He was born in an era of decadence and corruption, so much so that the world into which he entered was to be completely destroyed. Noah was selected to be the new Adam, a second progenitor of all humanity in the post-deluvian period that would represent a clean break from the sinful ways of his ancestors.
But it was not sufficient for the righteous Noah to sit back and watch Hashem carry out His decree of destruction. Instead, Noah was tasked to do something that no one else would ever be required to do in the annals of humanity. He was to build an ark of sizable proportions and use it to shelter thousands of creatures from the destructive waters of the flood. Moreover, he was to build this ark over a period of 120 years, a lengthy time period designed to allow him to influence others towards change and repentance. Lastly, he was to care for and subdue all of the animals in the ark, which included the collection and distribution of food for the countless species under his care. And he was to attend to their needs for many months, while practically ignoring his own essentials during that protracted time.
This last task was one that surely would have overwhelmed even the world’s most gifted and energetic zookeeper. Certainly, it was an overwhelming task for an aged, righteous man who likely never engaged in any meaningful animal rearing during his first six centuries of life. What was it about Noah that prepared him for this daunting task? What qualities did he possess that allowed him to step into the role of savior and help perpetuate not only mankind, but the entire animal kingdom as well?
While the Torah offers no direct answers to these questions, a few hints can be gleaned that may offer us some additional understanding. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (commentary to Bereishis 6:9) analyzes the descriptions of Noah offered in the introductory verse. The verse calls him an “ish tzadik, tamim,” a righteous man who was perfect. Rabbi Hirsch explains that each term, ish, tzaddik and tamim, independently signify unique aspects of his greatness.
Ish does not simply mean “man.” Any time that the Torah uses this designation, it testifies to the person’s distinction from his peers. The term tzaddik attests to his righteousness, an innate desire to meet the needs of others and ensure that they are adequately cared for. Tamim means that Noah had achieved moral perfection. And while these three accolades would be impressive in any age, it was a particularly special designation to receive a time of historic moral turpitude. By introducing the episode of the flood with a detailed description of Noah’s special character, the Torah may be teaching us that these qualities were most helpful in allowing Noah to meet his many responsibilities during this most trying period, by instilling confidence in those that he served, including even the animals under his jurisdiction.
Noah’s caring character was on clear display after the waters had begun to abate (see Bereishis 8:6ff). He sought to determine whether the ground had dried sufficiently for him to disembark and first sent a raven from the ark’s window. (According to Rabbi Hirsch, the raven represented a bird of the wild. If it were to return, which it did, then the earth was still far from inhabitable.) He then sent a dove, which was unable to find any resting place during its first journey. At the end of its second attempt seven days later, it brought back an olive branch, which symbolized its deep quest for freedom. (Our sages say that the bitter olive branch demonstrated that bitterness tasted in the context of freedom is far sweeter than sweetness tasted in a state of dependence.) Noah mercifully extended his arms to bring the tired bird back to him, and would release him for good one week later, despite having already received the information that he had sought. It was simply unjust for him to keep the dove in the ark after it had tasted the sweetness of freedom.
His humility was displayed a short time afterwards. When the earth had finally dried (Ibid, 15ff), Noah awaited formal permission to disembark, despite having endured extreme hardship for an extensive period. Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz points out that it would have been unconscionable for Noah to leave the ark sooner. He had entered through divine command and would leave in the same manner.
People seek many qualities in their leaders. Of course, they look to leaders for guidance, direction and support. They want to be assured that the individual who is leading them possesses the wherewithal to achieve the task at hand and direct them along a path of success. But people also want to know that their leader is a person of great character. They seek leaders who care deeply for their charges and remain properly rooted, focused, committed and balanced throughout even the most intense challenges. Knowing that the leader is fully invested in others’ successes and prioritizes their needs gives his followers a great degree of confidence and encourages their compliance through thick and thin.