Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Remarks about the first Rashi in Noach

 Here's Rashi's famous comment on the first verse in parshas Noach:

There are those from our Sages who interpret it [the word בְּדֹרֹתָיו] favorably: How much more so if he had lived in a generation of righteous people, he would have been even more righteous. Others interpret it derogatorily: In comparison with his generation he was righteous, but if he had been in Abraham’s generation, he would not have been considered of any importance

When I was in 9th grade, our teacher explained this comment as follows, "See how sly Rashi is? He says "our sages" [רבותינו] when speaking of those who praised Noach, but merely of "others" [ ויש שדורשים] when speaking of those who criticized him. From this we see that the derogatory view did not belong to our Sages, and Rashi, in this comment, is refuting those who read this verse that way."

Last night, I finally got around to checking Rashi's source. It's Bereshis Raba, where this disagreement about Noach's merits is cast as a debate between two sages, Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Nechemiah. Ah well. So much for that 9th grade teachers well meaning, but incorrect, deduction.

More interesting to me is something else: In the Midrash the two sages don't speculate about what Noach might have achieved had he lived in Abraham's time. Instead, they speak of the eras of Moshe and Samuel. Did Rashi have a different text of the midrash, or did he change it for some reason? *  And, what was so special about Abraham's era anyway? He (per other midrashim) was the only monotheist; everyone else was a pagan. Why would living among pagans have afforded Noah any spiritual advantage? Religiously speaking, Abraham's time was not much different from his own. The text of the midrash, as we have it, makes more sense, because it's easier to see the religious advantages of living during the time of Moses or Samuel.

Finally, having criticized my 9th grade teacher, allow me to praise my 11th grade teacher who shrewdly pointed out that Rashi's comment, as a whole, is a criticism of Noah: As Rashi has it, Noah is either a lightweight compared to Abraham, or someone who could have been Abraham's equal, but failed to reach his full potential.

*It may damage your hackles to hear that Rashi sometimes altered the text of midrashim for interpretive purposes, but this is well documented.

Search for more information about Noach at 4torah.com.

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