These are the descendants of Noach. Noach was a meritorious person and perfected in his generations. Noach traveled with Hashem. (Sefer Beresheit 6:9)
Noach’s righteousness was imperfect
Parshat Noach discusses the Mabul – the Deluge. The causes of the Mabul are described in the closing passages of Parshat Beresheit. Humanity corrupted itself. After it proved incapable of repenting, Hashem decreed that humanity should be destroyed. This would be accomplished through the Mabul. It would destroy humankind and all other life on the surface of the earth. Hashem would spare Noach and his family.
In our parasha, Hashem tells Noach that he and his family will be rescued from the Mabul. He commands Noach to build an enormous ark. It will provide refuge for him, his family, and representatives of each animal species. The survivors on the ark will repopulate the world after the Mabul.
The above passage opens our parasha. Noach is described as a righteous person who was perfected among the people of his times. Rashi quotes the comments of the midrash. The midrash explains that our Sages disputed the intent of the passage.
The passage can be interpreted to mean that Noach’s righteousness was remarkable compared to the wickedness of the people of his generation. In other words, if Noach had lived in another, less corrupt generation, then his righteousness would not have been as noteworthy. According to this interpretation, the passage is qualifying its praise of Noach.
An alternative interpretation is that Noach achieved greatness within a completely corrupt society. If he had lived in a more virtuous society, then he would have achieved even greater righteousness. According to this interpretation, the passage is amplifying Noach’s greatness by noting that it was achieved despite his surroundings.
These interpretations understand Noach as being less than perfectly righteous. They differ only on whether the passage is praising him for the righteousness he achieved or whether it is qualifying its praise. Rashi’s comments leave unaddressed an interesting issue. What was Noach’s failing?
And Noach was six hundred years old and the Deluge occurred. It was water upon the land. And Noach – his sons, his wife and his daughters-in law with him – came to the ark because of the water of the Deluge. (Sefer Beresheit 7:6-7)
Noach’s conviction was incomplete
The Torah does not explicitly respond to this question. Rashi suggests that a passage alludes to the answer. In the passages, above, Noach enters the ark accompanied by his family. The passages specify that he entered because of the waters of the Mabul. Again, quoting the midrash, Rashi comments that Noach entered the ark only when forced by the rising waters. He explains that Noach was conflicted in his views. He believed that the Mabul would take place. Yet, he harbored some reservation. This reservation prevented him from entering the ark. Only the rising waters forced him to abandon this reservation.
How can we understand this reservation? Noach constructed the ark. He filled it with provisions. He led into it a multitude of animals and situated each within. Hashem told him that the moment for the Mabul had arrived. Yet, Noach experienced doubt and hesitated before entering the ark! How could Noach devote years to preparing for the Mabul and be seized by uncertainty at the last moment?
Noach and cognitive dissonance
The passages above provide insight into this reservation and behavior. They note that that Noach was six-hundred years old when the Mabul began. Why does the Torah tell us Noach’s age at the time of the Mabul? What is the message communicated by this detail?
The Chumash is explaining that Noach lived for six hundred years in a world that would be completely destroyed. This was the world he knew and to which he was accustomed. Entering the ark acknowledged that he was leaving his familiar world and would emerge into a new, unknown world.
Rashi is describing the phenomenon of cognitive dissonance. Noach was confronted with a fact that was completely inconsistent with his most fundamental perceptions. Hashem told him that his world would be destroyed. Noach understood this message and he acted according to the directions Hashem gave him. However, the forthcoming Mabul remained inconsistent with his perception of the permanence or absolute reality of the world he knew. Consequently, he sustained two completely inconsistent convictions. One was that there would be a Mabul and his world would be destroyed. The second was that his world was stable and abiding. The sun would rise tomorrow just as it had the present day.
His behaviors reflect his conflict. Noach built the ark and acted as directed by Hashem. Yet, he maintained the belief that somehow, in the end, his world would not be destroyed. As the waters of the Mabul rose around him, he could no longer sustain this expectation. The waters forced him to abandon his belief in the permanence of his world and to take refuge in the ark.
According to Rashi, Noach’s deficiency is revealed in this behavior. He followed the word of Hashem and fulfilled His commandments. But he simultaneously harbored an element of doubt. His conviction was not perfect.
And he departed from there to the mountain east of Bet-El and he set up his tent. Bet-El was to the west and Ai was to the east. There, he built an altar to Hashem. And he called out it in the name of Hashem. (Sefer Breseheit 12:8)
Comparing Avraham and Noach
Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno suggests that we can identify Noach’s deficiency by comparing him to Avraham. Superficially, they seem very similar. Both were unique to their times. Both ascribed to views not accepted by their societies. Both attempted to persuade their contemporaries to repent. However, there is a very important difference between them. In the above passage, the Torah describes Avraham as calling out in the name of Hashem. This expression is not used regarding Noach.
What does this expression mean? Sforno explains that Avraham taught his contemporaries about Hashem. He summoned them to learn about their Creator and engage in His worship. The absence of this phrase in describing Noach reveals that he did not teach his contemporaries about Hashem.
Sforno beautifully describes the difference between Avraham and Noach:
“Noach was favored by Hashem” (Sefer Beresheit 6:8) to be saved and also his sons and daughters. This was not because he was deserving of this. As an expression of kindness of the L-rd, blessed be He, He granted this…
Daniel, Eyov (Job), and Noach … did not teach their generations to know Hashem as did Avraham, Moshe, Shmuel and others like them… Noach, even though he gave rebuke regarding their degenerate actions and social issues, did not teach them to know the L-rd, blessed be He, and to travel in His ways.
(This was the case) even though he was a righteous person and perfected in his understanding and personal actions. For it is true that the righteous person who perfects oneself only is fit to save oneself. However, the one who perfects also others is fit to save others. In this behavior, there is hope that he will bring about their repentance….
Noach promoted ethics not religion
Why is Noach not described as calling out in the name of Hashem? He did not engage teaching about Hashem and promoting His worship. He worked toward reforming the moral conduct of his generation. He rebuked his contemporaries for their lawlessness. He explained to them that in a lawless, violent society no one is safe. Every person is a potential victim. He worked to reform his society but he did not confront its religious notions.
According to Sforno, this is the fundamental difference between Avraham and Noach. Avraham taught his contemporaries about Hashem but Noach was reticent to address the spiritual lives of the people. This reticence is Noach’s failing.
Openly displaying one’s beliefs
These comments are relevant to every generation. It is important to engage in Noach’s work. We should support and sustain a high standard of morals and ethics in society. Jews should advance social justice, protect and rescue the oppressed, relieve suffering, and promote a just society. We must also be like Avraham. We should be forthcoming and proudly profess our religious views. We are required to be both privately and publicly observant. We do not proselytize others to join our people. However, we should embrace opportunities to effectively teach others and promote belief in Hashem.
 There are problems with viewing the Mabul as covering the entire Earth. Rav David Zvi Hoffman and others have suggested that the Mabul was localized. Rav Hoffmann contends that this view is supported by statements of the Sages of the Talmud. This issue is discussed in Thoughts 5775, Parshat Noach: Is the Torah Believable?
 Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 6:9.
 This position is rejected by other commentators. See, for example, Ramban, Sefer Beresheit 6:9.
 Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 7:7.
 Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, 6:8.