The Individual and the Community

וַיָּחֶל נֹחַ אִישׁ הָאֲדָמָה וַיִּטַּע כָּרֶם

Noach became a man of the earth, and he planted a vineyard. (9:20)

In the midrash,[1] we find the following:

Said Rav Berechiah: Moshe was more beloved than Noach. Noach went from being called “Ish tzaddik – a righteous man”[2] to being called “Ish Ha’adamah – a man of the earth.”[3] [By contrast,] Moshe was initially called “Ish Mitzri – an Egyptian man,”[4] and then subsequently called “Ish ha’Elokim – a man of God.”[5]

The Meshech Chochmah explains that the intent of the midrash is not simply to chart the different trajectories of Noach and Moshe, contrasting how they started out with how they ended up. Rather, the point is that there is something about the way they originally were which caused them to end up as they did.

Noach is initially called “a righteous man,” reflecting his elevated spiritual level as an individual. He had minimal involvement with others around him, focusing instead on his personal religious development and relationship with Hashem. Now, it would seem that in choosing this path, he spared himself any negative influence from his surroundings, as well as any distraction from his devotions. Indeed, it is undeniably the case that time spent involved in community matters is time that could have otherwise been spent rising higher as an individual. And yet, Noach is criticized for not interacting with his community and trying to influence them for the better. Moreover, the midrash informs us, it was his exclusive focus on his own spiritual wellbeing to the exclusion of others that ultimately led him to a state of spiritual decline, leaving him with the mundane and ignoble title of “a man of the earth”.

With Moshe, the opposite occurred. The midrash notes that he was originally called “an Egyptian man.” This was how he was referred to by Yisro’s daughters when he came to their aid at the well in Midian. His presence in that land was the result of him having to flee from Pharaoh after having killed an Egyptian in defense of a fellow Hebrew. Here too, in an immediate sense, his actions on that occasion on behalf of others seemed only detrimental to any spiritual advancement, for he was now forced to flee to unfamiliar surroundings an establish himself anew. And yet, the midrash informs us that it was this very devotion to others which led him to ultimately attain the exalted epitaph of “a man of God.”

The Meshech Chochmah proceeds to refer to a midrash which likewise contrasts Moshe with Noach, in that Noach saved only himself while Moshe saved his generation as well when they sinned with the Golden Calf.[6] In truth, this contrast would appear more apt, seeing as both individuals are assessed therein in terms of what they did – or did not do – for their entire generation. In light of this, we can return to our opening midrash and receive additional insight. For although Moshe would indeed go on, in time, to save his entire generation, his upward spiritual trajectory was initiated by his efforts on behalf of one fellow Jew many years before.[7]

[1] Bereishis Rabbah 36:3.

[2] Bereishis 6:9.

[3] Ibid. 9:20.

[4] Shemos 2:19.

[5] Devarim 33:1.

[6] Devarim Rabbah 11:3.

[7] The contrast is further accentuated when we consider that, in Noach’s case, the engagement with his generation that was expected of him would itself have been spiritual in nature – i.e. exhorting them to better their moral and spiritual state. In Moshe’s case, the actions he took on behalf of his fellow Hebrew were purely in the realm of protecting his physical safety and wellbeing. Yet even this was sufficient to initiate his spiritual journey whose ultimate attainment would be the status of “a man of God.”