Noah’s Virtues

Let us consider this scenario. You work for a company in which each employee has a detailed job description, which serves as the basis for his or her semi-annual evaluation. Promotions, bonuses, and raises all depend upon this evaluation.

Now imagine that your fellow employee, with whom you are somewhat competitive, receives the bonus that you anticipated but, to your chagrin, did not receive. So, you go to the boss, with whom you are quite friendly, and ask for an explanation. He responds, but instead of citing your fellow worker’s outstanding job performance, he simply says, “I like the guy!”

At the very least, you would be quite disappointed and would probably protest the unfairness of assessing work performance on the basis of “liking the guy.”

Let us consider another scenario, from a different walk of life. You and your friend Charles are classmates in a graduate-level course in physics. You both study together, and you know full well that you’ve mastered the material and that Charles has not, certainly not to the extent that you have. When the class rankings are announced, you discover that Charles is number one, and that you’re much lower on the list. You go to the professor and demand an explanation. He admits that your test score was higher than Charles’, but explains that he ranked Charles higher in the class standings because “he finds favor in my eyes!”

Would any self-respecting student accept such blatant favoritism? I bet that you would sooner appear in the department chairman’s office to register your protest.

We have every right to expect fairness in all of our interactions, whether in a business setting or in an educational one. One would think that we certainly have the right to expect fairness from the Almighty. Surely, He does not play favorites. And yet, reading the story of Noah, who is the hero of this week’s Torah portion and after whom the portion is named, we find a phrase which makes us wonder.

Truth to tell, the troublesome phrase does not appear in this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Noach (Genesis 6:9-11:32). If we read only the very first verse in this week’s parsha we discover that Noah was spared from the great deluge because of his very real merit: “Noah was a righteous man; he was blameless in his age; Noah walked with God.” The rest of the Earth was “corrupt before God… and filled with lawlessness.” Noah had an excellent “job performance” and solid “test scores.” He deserved the “bonus” and earned his status at the top of his class fairly and squarely.

But were Noah’s virtues the reason that the Almighty chose to spare him?

To answer this question correctly, I must refer you to a rule I try to impress upon my students in all of my classes about the weekly Torah portion. I find that we often assume that the narrative of each portion begins at its beginning. We fail to recall that the point of departure for every Torah portion is the final passage in the previous week’s Torah portion. Before proceeding with any week’s new parsha, we must at least glance at the concluding verses of the previous week’s parsha. Therefore, if we are to fully understand Parshas Noach, we must turn the pages back to the final episode in Parshas Bereshit. There we read:

The Lord saw how great was man’s wickedness on earth… Nothing but evil all the time.
The Lord regretted that he had made man and said, “I will blot out from the earth the men
whom I created… For I regret that I made them.” But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord.

Note that the Torah does not say that the Lord spared Noah because he was not a wicked nor evil, but just and righteous. No! The Torah says, “Noah found favor with the Lord.” “Noach matza chen…” The Almighty simply “liked the guy.”

Are we to believe that Noah was spared not because of his moral rectitude, but because he was a likable “nice guy?” Because he had chen (often translated as “charm”)?

For a highly original and most provocative answer to this question, we must turn to the commentary of the great early 18th century scholar and kabbalist, Rabbi Chaim ibn Attar, who began his long life in North Africa but who emigrated to the Holy Land, where he today lies buried upon the Mount of Olives. Like many other great sages, he is best known by the title of his masterful commentary upon the Torah, Ohr HaChaim (or “Chaim’s Light”).

Let me paraphrase his explanation: The Almighty regretted His entire “experiment.” Mankind was discovered to be prone to evil and perversion. The Lord’s reaction, as it were, was to destroy the world and start all over again. There would be no exception for those rare individuals who were righteous. A new beginning was the only answer. But among those individuals was a man who had special “charm;” a special smile, perhaps, or some other irresistibly likable feature. So, the Lord decided not to terminate the experiment, but to persist with His creation. Instead, He would allow this one fellow who “found favor in His eyes” to launch a new beginning, together with his immediate family.

Noah was indeed “righteous and blameless.” But those virtues were not what saved him. He was saved because “he found favor in the eyes of the Lord.”

But how does one find favor in the eyes of the Lord? Ohr HaChaim explains that it is not as simple as having a winning smile or a likable demeanor. Here is his theory:

“Chen, favor, is achieved through the performance of certain special mitzvot, or good deeds. For you must know that there are several mitzvot that are designed to bestow chen upon a person. That is, three or four specific mitzvot that are not made known to man. If they were, we would all perform only those good deeds and no others. Noah, probably unknowingly, performed the very mitzvot that would gain him favor in the eyes of the Almighty.”

That is the conclusion of Rabbi Chaim ibn Atar’s comment. But it is not the end of my story.

Rabbi ibn Atar’s comment was initially brought to my attention by the late Rabbi Isaac Bernstein, in one of his weekly lectures. Since then, I have had many occasions to use the concept of these several mysterious mitzvot that earn the Lord’s favor, His good graces.

I use it in classroom settings, in Shabbat table conversations, and occasionally even in sermons. I ask others to come up with their own suggestions or guesses as to what these three or four special “hidden” mitzvot might be.

Some respond and say that these must be mitzvot that help other people. Charity perhaps, or meticulous ethical behavior. Others assume that these must be mitzvot that entail great spiritual piety.

So, dear reader, I ask you. What do you suppose are these three or four mitzvot? If you are at a loss, bring the question up at your Shabbat table this Friday night. Perhaps one of your guests, or, more likely, one of your young children, will have the right answers. Shabbat Shalom.