How Righteous Was He?
The end of Parashat Beresheet describes mankind's descent into utter corruption and depravity, as well as God's decision to destroy humanity and start anew. Noah, a righteous man, is chosen by Hashem to be spared from the Flood and to rebuild civilization afterward.
In the opening verse of Parashat Noah, we read:
These are the descendants of Noah - Noah was a righteous man, perfect in his generations; Noah walked with God.
In his commentary, Rashi cites the famous dispute of our Sages regarding the meaning of the phrase "in his generations":
Some of our Rabbis interpret this positively - that were he to have lived in a generation of righteous people, he would have been even more righteous. And some interpret it negatively - relative to his generation, Noah was righteous, but had he lived in the generation of Avraham, he wouldn't have been considered righteous at all.
What is the significance of this argument in the broader scheme of things? Why should we be concerned with the standard by which God judged Noah to be righteous?
Two Types of Intervention
I believe that the difference of opinion of our Rabbis stems from a more fundamental question about the Noah story. We are familiar with two forms of Divine Providence: Hashgacha Kelalit , or general providence, and Hashgacha Peratit, individualized providence.
Some narratives in the Torah exemplify individual providence, such as the accounts of Avraham, Yitshaq, Yaaqov, Yosef, etc. Others capture instances of general providence, such as the account of God's intervention at the Tower of Bavel.
Whether we understand events as reflections of individual or of general providence has important implications. When we study cases of individual providence, our primary focus is on the main character or protagonist. A recipient of hashgacha peratit is, by definition, someone whose behavior and character are exemplary and whom we should try to emulate. The Torah tells us about such people so we can do our best to follow in their footsteps.
By contrast, stories about general providence are designed to teach us about the ways of Hashem. Although they may include moral lessons as well, their main purpose is to provide us with examples of the wisdom, compassion and justice of God in dealing with His creatures.
We can now see why the story of Noah is more difficult to classify. Noah may have been saved because he was personally worthy of a high level of Divine intervention. If that is the case, then we must understand the saga of the Flood and the subsequent Rainbow Covenant in the same way that we understand the stories of the Patriarchs - as a reflection of hashgacha peratit for Noah. This perspective singles Noah out as a remarkable individual. If Noah was capable of developing such a deep and genuine relationship with God during the pre-Flood period, we can only imagine the level of perfection he would have reached if he had lived in the days of Avraham.
There is, however, another possibility. Noah may not have "deserved" God's miraculous assistance in his own right. God might have spared Noah from the Mabul not because of his extraordinary piety but simply in order to ensure the continuity of the human species, i.e., as a function of hashgacha kelalit. Hashem did not want to create Adam and Eve all over again; hence, he had to select at least one human family who would survive the Flood and go on to reproduce afterward. For this purpose, God chose Noah - the most refined man of that otherwise base generation - and commanded him to construct the Ark.If this interpretation is correct, then we must approach the story of Noah as a depiction of God's general providence, with Noah serving as nothing more than a representative of the human race. The narrative is not really about Noah. He was just the vehicle through which God preserved humanity.
Considering The Evidence
The fact that Noah gets drunk shortly after exiting the Ark certainly seems to support the latter explanation. Indeed, the Rabbis say that Noah brought a grape vine with him onto the Ark, implying that his behavior was a reflection of his personality from the outset, not merely a response to the trauma of witnessing the devastation of the Mabul. This indicates that he was not the kind of person who would be worthy of personalized Divine intervention.
The strongest proof for the view that the story of Noah is really about God's providence over humanity in general, and not about His care for Noah in particular, is the appearance of Noah in the Rosh Hashana prayers:
"And also Noah did You remember with love, and You recalled him for salvation and mercy. Thus did his remembrance come before You, Hashem our God, to increase his seed like the dust of the Earth and his descendants like the sand of the sea. As it is written in Your Torah, 'And God remembered Noah, and all the wild beasts and animals who were with him in the ark, and God caused a wind to pass over the land, and the waters subsided.'"
The Talmud in Masechet Rosh Hashana tells us that, in the section of Mussaf that deals with "remembrances" (zichronot), we are required to quote ten verses from Tanach that refer to God "remembering" His creatures. However, only verses that describe God's involvement with a collective are supposed to be used. We are not to recite verses that speak of hasgacha peratit, i.e., in which Hashem shows mercy to an individual. Why, then, would the Rabbis include Hashem's deliverance of Noah in the prayer?
We can infer from this that our Rabbis preferred to interpret the story of Noah in the framework of hashgacha kelalit. They suggested that we view God's relationship with Noah in light of His will to preserve humanity in general, and not in terms of individual providence. This makes Hashem's remembrance of Noah an appropriate addition to our Rosh Hashana tefillot.