Jewish Personalities

Noach vs Avraham – Passive vs Active

Avraham Avinu is generally considered the first Jew – the person who assumed the role of spreading awareness of HaShem in the world. He is briefly mentioned in parashas Noach, but his life is covered in great depth in Lech Lecha, Vayeira, and, to a lesser extent, Chayei Sarah. His early life is not covered by the Torah, but midrashim elaborate on his journey to emunah.

The Torah covers numerous events in his later life, including his journeys to Eretz Yisrael; his sojourns in Egypt and Philistine; his battle with the four kings; the bris bein habesarim; his marriage to Hagar and the birth of Yishmael; bris milah; the story of the malachim; the destruction of Sedom; the expulsion of Yishmael; his acquisition of the Cave of Machpelah and burial of Sarah; and his marriage to Keturah (Hagar). He is also called Eisan HaEzrachi in the Navi. His father was Terach, and his mother was Amaslai. His sons were Yitzchak, from Sarah, and Yishmael, Zimran, Yokshan, Medan, Midyan, Yishbak, and Shuach, from Hagar. He lived to age 175 and is buried in the Cave of Machpelah.

“These are the offspring of Noach: Noach was a righteous man, perfect in his generations; Noach walked with G-d.” Noach was the greatest person in his time, the only one who deserved to be spared from the flood. And yet Noach is unfavorably compared to Avraham Avinu by Chazal in a number of places. What is the difference between these two great men?

Rashi brings a midrash that contrasts Avraham and Noach. With regard to Noach, the Torah says, “Noach walked with G-d.” This means that he needed help in his avodas HaShem. But to Avraham, HaShem says, “Walk before Me.” This means that Avraham could strengthen himself on his own. The commentaries explain that Avraham was proactive and self-motivated. He did not need external events to stimulate him to serve HaShem and perform acts of kindness. Noach needed external circumstances to push him forward in his righteousness.

Rav Eliyahu E. Dessler, ztz”l, expands on this idea. He writes that Noach is called ish tzaddik (man of righteousness), while Avraham is ish chesed (man of kindness). Noach performed incredible acts of kindness in the ark, feeding hundreds of animals for months. However, says Rav Dessler, “This was only tzedek – he fulfilled his obligation.” It did not stem from an overflowing desire to give, but was rather a reaction to the needs of others. Avraham, in contrast, acted kindly not out of obligation, but because of a burning desire to give.

This divergence between Noach and Avraham is not restricted to kindness in the physical realm, but also extends into the spiritual realm. Seforno writes that Noach did rebuke the people in his generation, but he went no further. “He did not teach them to know G-d and how to go in His ways.” Consequently, he did not possess enough merit to save the generation. In contrast, Avraham went far beyond the call of duty to teach the world to know HaShem.

The commentaries also discuss why Noach’s great descendants, Shem and Ever, did not merit Avraham’s greatness. Rambam describes how Avraham fought against the idolatry prevalent in his times. “He began to call out in a loud voice to the whole world and taught them that there is one G-d in the world and it is He Whom one should serve…. He would continually call out and gather the people from city to city and from kingdom to kingdom until he reached there, as it says, ‘and he called out in the name of HaShem, the eternal G-d.’ And when the people would gather and ask him what he was preaching, he would teach to every one of them, each according to his ability, until he brought them to the true way, until tens of thousands of people gathered to follow him.”

The Raavad writes on this description, “I am astonished, for Shem and Ever were there at this time. How could they not protest [against the idolatry that surrounded them]? The Kesef Mishneh answers, “Shem and Ever were teaching the way of HaShem to their students, but they did not rouse themselves to call and teach as Avraham did. Because of this, he rose to a higher level than they did.”

This seems difficult to understand. We know that Shem and Ever had a yeshivah in which they taught Torah for a very long time. Why, then, are they considered on a lower level than Avraham Avinu, to the extent that he is the spiritual father of Klal Yisrael, the Chosen People, but they are not?

We can answer this question with Rav Dessler’s principle. There are two ways to give. A person can be reactive, waiting for people who want to learn Torah and grow in their Yiddishkeit, or one can be proactive, seeking out people who would not otherwise want to learn Torah or develop any kind of relationship with HaShem. Noach, Shem, and Ever were limited to the first type of giving. This is a high level, but, as Rav Dessler explains, it does not qualify as true chesed. Avraham, however, was proactive. He did not wait for people to come to him. He sought out people who did not even know that they were lacking anything and taught them about HaShem. This is true chesed. This is what caused Avraham to rise to a higher level than Noach, Shem, and Ever.

Why would a person reach the level of reactive kindness but fail to progress to the higher level of giving proactively? The clue to this can be found in Noach’s name. We know that a person’s name teaches us about his essence. The word noach means “comfortable.” It is not easy to take responsibility for something without first being called upon to do so. The negative inclination (yetzer hara) will find numerous excuses to avoid taking on a challenging endeavor when his true motivation is a desire for comfort.

Rabbeinu Bachya ibn Pekuda, the great author of Chovos HaLevavos, reveals to us that he was subject to this very challenge. He writes in the introduction that after planning to write the sefer he changed his mind, citing a number of reasons. “I thought my powers too limited and my mind too weak to grasp the ideas. Furthermore, I do not possess an elegant style in Arabic, in which the book would have been written…. I feared that I would be undertaking a task that would succeed [only] in exposing my shortcomings…. Therefore I decided to drop my plans and revoke my decision.”

However, he recognized that perhaps his motives were not completely pure. “I began to suspect that I had chosen the comfortable option, looking for peace and quiet. I feared that what had motivated the cancellation of the project had been the desire for self-gratification, which had driven me to seek ease and comfort, to opt for inactivity and sit idly by.” To the eternal benefit of Klal Yisrael, he decided to write the sefer, and it is difficult to imagine the Jewish people’s being bereft of its spiritual guidance.

The reasons he initially cited in support of his decision not to write the sefer seem fair and logical. But he recognized that, on his level, they were tainted by a desire for comfort. We too have plausible reasons to ignore opportunities to help Klal Yisrael. But we must be extremely careful that we are not in fact just being lazy. Imagine how many great works or bold initiatives may never have reached fruition because of this yetzer hara.

Another hindrance to proactivity is misplaced bitachon. A person may have the hashkafah that HaShem will send him his purpose on a silver platter. History proves that the great builders in Torah did not have this attitude. They looked at the problems in the world and decided to take action to rectify them without waiting to be told to do so. People such as Rav Aharon Kotler, the Ponevezher Rav, and Rebbetzin Sarah Shenirer emulated Avraham Avinu and took the initiave to build Torah institutions. These institutions reinforced Torah and enabled us to survive the spiritual onslaught of the Enlightenment and the physical onslaught of the Holocaust.

In our generation, one does not have to look far to find opportunities to improve the world in some form. But he must not wait to be asked to step forward. If he does wait, the opportunity may never materialize. HaShem may want us to open our eyes and take action without being prompted to do so. As we have seen, there are people who have already done so, showing us that it is possible.

Noach was a great man, but he is not the progenitor of the Chosen People. He performed acts of kindness, but only after he was instructed to. He rebuked the people, but only after HaShem had told him to do so as a reactive person, who needed external circumstance to arouse him to action. By contrast, Avraham Avinu did not need to be motivated to serve HaShem. He did not wait for people to come to him in order to teach them Torah. He reached the level of true chesed through great effort. It is incumbent upon us, his descendants, to emulate him and seek and pursue opportunities to make a difference to Klal Yisrael.

From the book “Beacons of Light”


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