We all recognize Noah as the righteous hero who courageously withstood the flood of corruption and depravity that swept the Earth during his time, in the merit of which he survived the flood of water which Gd brought to destroy the Earth. Whereas most people fall prey to widespread cultural influences, and get swept in the sociological currents of their time, believing what the majority believes and acting as the majority acts, Noah was different. He was strong and resolute in his faith and conviction, and remained faithful to morality and justice even in a world overrun by immorality and injustice.
But there is also another, more subtle, dimension to Noah’s heroic character, which often goes unnoticed.
The Torah alludes to this dimension in the opening verse of the parashah which bears Noah’s name, which we read this month as we renew, with Gd’s help, our annual Torah reading cycle. Noah is described in the parashah’s introductory verse as a man who was righteous “bedorotav – in his generations.” Significantly, this word is written in the plural form – “generations” – clearly emphasizing that Noah’s righteousness characterized his entire life, and not just one specific stage. It seems that the Torah wishes to dispel the possible misconception that Noah’s special righteous quality was unique to the period before the flood, when he heroically resisted the sinful trends of the time. In truth, Noah’s righteousness can be seen throughout “his generations,” even after the flood.
In order to understand Noah’s righteousness after the flood, and its message for us, we need to carefully examine Noah’s actions immediately upon exiting the ark.
The Torah tells that the first thing Noah did upon disembarking from the ark was build an altar and offer sacrifices (8:20). The reason for these offerings is explained by the Midrash (Pirkeh DeRabbi Eliezer), which comments that after surviving the flood and the grueling experience of living in the ark together with the animals, Noah felt obligated to offer a korban todah– a thanksgiving offering to express his gratitude to Gd.
This perspective on Noah’s sacrifices likely underlies the otherwise perplexing comment of Targum Yonatan ben Uziel, in translating the Torah’s brief account of Noah’s offering, telling us that Noah offered four sacrifices after the flood. The number 4 conjures numerous associations, including an association with the korban todah. Tradition teaches that a thanksgiving sacrifice is required when a person safely emerges from one of four different precarious situations: 1) captivity; 2) an overseas voyage; 3) illness; 4) desert travel. Once we know that Noah offered sacrifices as a korban todah, a thanksgiving offering, we may reasonably assume that this is what Targum Yonatan had in mind in noting that Noah offered four sacrifices. It seems that Noah offered four sacrifices because he experienced all four dangers for which a korban todah is required. The period of the flood and its aftermath was, no doubt, an unimaginably frightening experience that threatened Noah and his family on several levels, thus requiring several thanksgiving offerings.
This theory, however, must be tested against the four specific situations requiring a korban todah. While it is obvious that the flood was a dangerous, life-threatening ordeal, is it really true that Noah endured all four dangers for which a thanksgiving sacrifice is brought?
Quite obviously, Noah experienced a sea voyage – a voyage like no other, floating on an endless ocean of stormy waters that covered the entire earth. And, without doubt, Noah was held “captive,” trapped in an ark for an entire year with representatives from the entire animal kingdom, with absolutely no possibility of escaping. Thirdly, our Sages teach that Noah suffered serious injury from some of the animals in the ark, such as when he arrived late to feed the lion, and the lion bit his hand. Hence, Noah also endured illnesses, his recovery from which warranted a thanksgiving offering.
The “missing link,” however, is the fourth situation – desert travel. Noah did not cross any deserts over the course of his experience in the ark. In fact, there were no deserts; the world was covered completely by water. Seemingly, then, we have a gaping hole in the theory proposed above to explain Targum Yonatan’s remark, that Noah offered four sacrifices because he endured all four situations of peril requiring a korban todah. Is this indeed a fatal flaw in the theory, or might there be a basis to claim that Noah crossed a desert at some point during his ordeal?
Noah’s Journey After the Flood
The answer, interestingly enough, is found in that very same passage in Targum Yonatan, in which the geographic location of Noah’s altar is identified. Targum Yonatan writes that Noah constructed an altar on the very site where Adam had built an altar and offered a sacrifice after his banishment from Gan Eden. In his quest for atonement for having partaken of the forbidden tree, Adam constructed an altar and brought a sin-offering to earn Gd’s favor. Targum Yonatantells that this was the altar used by Adam’s sons, Kayin and Hevel, when they brought their respective offerings to Gd, as we read earlier, in Parashat Beresheet (4:3-4). This altar was destroyed during the flood, Targum Yonatantells, and this is why the Torah tells that Noah built a new altar upon which to offer his sacrifices.
The history of that site does not end with Noah’s sacrifice. In fact, the history of that site is still being written, to this very day.
Later in the Book of Beresheet (chapter 22), we read the famous story of akedat Yitzhak, when Gd tested Avraham by commanding him to sacrifice his beloved son, Yitzhak. Avraham traveled with his son to the designated site, where he constructed an altar. As he lifted the knife, ready to sacrifice Yitzhak, an angel called out to Avraham and told him to desist. Avraham immediately saw a ram which he promptly captured and offered as a sacrifice upon the altar in Yitzhak’s stead. Targum Yonatan, in the context of this story (22:9), writes that this was the same site where Adam, and later Noah, offered sacrifices. The altar built by Noah was dismantled during the period of the Tower of Babel, when the people of the world set out to obliterate the worship of Gd, and so Avraham built a new altar at that site, and it was upon this altar that he placed Yitzhak.
Later (22:14), Targum Yonatan informs us that this site was none other than the site of the Bet Ha’mikdash in Jerusalem. The place where Am Yisrael would for centuries offer sacrifices to Gd, and where we will, in the future, resume offering sacrifices for all eternity, is the very spot where Adam, Kayin, Hevel, Noah and Avraham offered sacrifices. This point is made explicitly by the Rambam, in Hilchot Bet Hebehirah(2:2):
There is a tradition maintained by everyone that the site where David and Shlomo constructed the altar in Aravnah’s granary is the site where Avraham constructed the altar and bound Yitzhak upon it, and this is the site where Noah constructed [an altar] when he exited the ark, and this is the altar upon which Kayin and Hevel offered sacrifices, and there Adam Harishon offered a sacrifice when he was created, and he was created from there. The sages said: Adam was created from the site of his atonement.
There is much to be said about the Rambam’s account, and about the concept of man being created at the site of the altar of the Bet Hamikdash, the site where we earn atonement through sacrificial offerings. For our purposes in this essay, though, it suffices to make a simple geographical observation: Noah did not build an altar at the place where he exited the ark. The Torah tells (8:4) that the ark landed in the Ararat region, which is commonly identified as an area in what is today Turkey. If Noah constructed his altar on what later became the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, the site of the Bet Hamikdash, then necessarily, he journeyed a considerable distance after leaving the ark, from Ararat to Jerusalem. He did not simply leave the ark and then immediately build an altar. He made a lengthy trek to what would become Jerusalem in order to offer sacrifices at the site which his ancestors used, and his descendants would later use, as a special site of sacrificial worship.
If so, then indeed, Noah had four reasons to offer a thanksgiving sacrifice. Not only did he survive a sea voyage, captivity and serious injury, but he also survived a lengthy journey across deserts, making his way from the Ararat hills to Jerusalem. And for this reason, he offered four sacrifices, to thank Gd for safely delivering him from all four perilous situations.
Noah’s Courageous Choice
The reader might be wondering, understandably, why all this is significant, and why this point is worthy of a lengthy magazine article. What difference does it make where Noah offered his sacrifices?
This question is answered by another question. Why would Noah travel so far to offer these sacrifices of thanksgiving? Why did he not simply build an altar in Ararat, where he exited the ark? Why did he find it necessary to journey all the way to Jerusalem?
After the flood, Noah had a vitally important decision to make. He stepped out of the ark knowing that he and his family were now the only human beings on the face of the earth. He was, in a sense, the new Adam. The question then was, how would Noah view his role as builder of the new world? Would he truly view himself as “Adam,” erasing all past history and building something entirely new, or would he build his new world upon the foundations of the old world? Would he try to create something altogether different, all his own, or would he humbly seek to continue the legacy of the righteous people who preceded him, now that the evildoers have been eliminated?
Noah’s trek to Jerusalem sent a powerful message that he was not seeking the glory of building an entirely new world. He was intent upon offering sacrifices at the same site where his predecessors offered sacrifices, because he viewed himself as Adam’s successor, not Adam’s replacement. He wanted to build upon the ruins of the old world, rather than erase the memory of the old world and build something entirely new and different, asserting himself as the new “Adam Harishon.”
This, perhaps, is why Noah is described as a righteous person “in his generations.” He was righteous not just before the flood, in resisting the trend of evil, but also after the flood, in making the courageous choice to build upon the ruins of the past, rather than eradicate the past. Noah could have easily said, “My predecessors failed. They built a world that had to be destroyed. I’m going to do something totally new and take the credit for building a different, successful world.” But instead, Noah humbly set his ego aside and set out to rebuild his ancestors’ altar, rather than build a new altar in a new location, signaling that he saw himself as Adam’s successor, as an important link between past and future, and not as the innovator of a new chain.
Rebuilding After the 20th-Century “Flood”
The Jewish world experienced a “flood” of its own just several decades ago, with the destruction of European Jewry in the Holocaust and the Jews’ migration from Arab lands following the establishment of the State of Israel. The upheavals that occurred at that time resulted in the transition of the epicenters of Jewish life from Europe and Arab lands to the United States and Israel.
Like Noah, our nation had a fundamental choice to make as it sought to rebuild Jewish life after this “flood.” Would they build something entirely new and different, erasing the memory of the past, confining the memory of our ancestors’ traditions to dusty library shelves and museum exhibits? Or, would they follow Noah’s example, and rebuild Jewish life on the foundations of our past, perpetuating the beliefs, traditions, values, and customs of our ancestors?
The Mishnah in Pirkeh Avot(4:20) comments, “Yesh kankan hadash maleh yashan– There can be a new flask filled with old wine.” Quality, aged wine will not be compromised by being moved into new, fresh bottles. The point being made is that there is nothing wrong with preserving our ancient tradition using “new bottles,” meaning, using modern conveniences and advancements. We now use telephones, computers, automobiles, airplanes, appliances, advanced medical procedures, and so on. All these are “new bottles,” things which our ancestors never knew about. Our sages teach us that using “new bottles” does not allow us to fill them with “new wine,” with new laws and practices. The fact that our ancestors did not have smartphones does not mean that we may use our smartphones on Shabbat since they had never before been forbidden. The fact that people dress differently in our society than they did back in the old country does not permit violating our tradition’s code of modest dress. Our “new bottles” must be used with “old wine.” We use our ancient system of laws and values to determine how we handle modern innovations, how the Torah permits utilizing them. Changing realities does not justify changing our core principles.
Lest there be any misunderstanding, let me emphasize that I am not calling for a rejection of modernity, and for returning to the austere lifestyle of our great-grandparents in Syria. I am saying that the Mishnah is telling us precisely the opposite – that we are encouraged to use “new flasks” for our ancient “wine.” The Mir Yeshiva in Brooklyn, for example, outwardly looks nothing like the Mir Yeshiva in Europe. It is a beautiful, modern building with modern lighting, heating and air conditioning. But the Torah studied in this magnificent, modern building is the same Torah that was studied in the Mir Yeshiva in Europe a century ago. “There can be a new flask filled with old wine.”
Noah’s life, then, provides us with two vitally important messages for the complicated times in which we live. Pre-flood Noah teaches us about withstanding negative influences, how we can exist as a small minority heroically clinging to our ideals and values even in a world overrun by contrary ideals and values. Post-flood Noah teaches us that when the time comes to rebuild, we must build on top of the foundations of our esteemed predecessors.
In today’s world, the word “new” is frequently associated with the word “improved.” There is an automatic assumption that newer is better. And in many ways, this is certainly true. Newer cars are better than old cars, newer electronic devices are better than old electronic devices, and new medical procedures are better than old medical procedures. But we must be extremely careful not to apply this mindset to values and lifestyle. The values and laws of the Torah are no less precious or important now than they were centuries or millennia ago. Let us continue working to preserve and maintain our “vintage wine,” our glorious heritage, and to ensure that Jewish life on these shores will be yet another chapter, another magnificent link, in the glorious chain of Torah tradition.