Noah is a notoriously difficult character to pin down. Is he being presented as one of our heroes, to be emulated for his exceptional virtue, or as a tragic foil for the real heroes to come?
Here is a man who was singled out by God for salvation. His unfathomable efforts before and during the Flood managed to preserve and then restart humanity—and to save all animal species from extinction along the way. According to the Torah’s narrative, we all owe our lives to Noah, for from the families of “בני נח נפרדו הגוים בארץ אחר המבול - the Children of Noah, all the nations spread out onto the earth after the Flood” (Genesis 10:32).
Yet that very verse is the last we hear of Noah in the Torah.1 For all the magnitude of Noah’s accomplishments, our story then just leaves him behind and moves swiftly on to Abraham, whose family we will be following for the rest of Genesis.
Noah was even the first to receive a brit, a covenant from God. But he does not merit the covenant that will be the Torah’s primary focus starting in next week’s parashah. Something is missing in Noah, something under-realized.
Rashi is keenly aware of this ambiguity in Noah’s status. When the first verse of the parashah tells us that “Noah was a pure and righteous man in his generation” (Genesis 6:9), Rashi wonders: why the extra clause, “in his generation”? He cites a talmudic debate:2
יש מרבותינו דורשים אותו לשבח, כל שכן אלו היה בדור צדיקים היה צדיק יותר; ויש שדורשים אותו לגנאי, לפי דורו היה צדיק ואלו היה בדורו של אברהם לא היה נחשב לכלום.
Some of our Rabbis interpret this as praise, as if to say, “All the more so, if he had been in a generation full of righteous people, he would have been even more righteous!” But some interpret it as a critique, as if to say, “Only with respect to his generation was he righteous, but if he had been in the generation of Abraham, he would not have been considered anything at all.”
We can find these doubts about Noah’s legacy seeded in the language of the Torah itself. In the Torah’s storytelling, a name is more than just an identifying word. It is a way of suggesting some essential quality manifested in a character, one that can help us understand their behavior, and even anticipate their destiny.3 In Noah’s case, however, his naming prompts exactly the sort of uncertainty around his character that we have so far been contemplating. He is first named at the end of last week’s parashah:
וַיְחִי לֶמֶךְ שְׁתַּיִם וּשְׁמֹנִים שָׁנָה וּמְאַת שָׁנָה וַיּוֹלֶד בֵּן: וַיִּקְרָא אֶת־שְׁמוֹ נֹחַ לֵאמֹר זֶה יְנַחֲמֵנוּ מִמַּעֲשֵׂנוּ וּמֵעִצְּבוֹן יָדֵינוּ מִן־הָאֲדָמָה אֲשֶׁר אֵרְרָהּ ה':
When Lemekh had lived 182 years, he begat a son. And he named him Noah, saying, “This one will provide us relief (yenahameinu) from our work and from the pain of our hands, out of the very soil which the Eternal cursed.”
The reference here is to the curse of the ground that God issued after Adam and Eve sinned by eating the fruit of the forbidden tree: “In pain (בעצבון) you shall eat of it all the days of your life” (Genesis 3:17). Noah, his father hopes, will be a harbinger of relief (נחמה) from the toil and suffering that human beings have endured ever since, as they tried to eke their sustenance out from the ground.
But there is a problem with this derivation. Although the name Noah sounds similar to the word for relief (yenahem), they do not share a Hebrew root.4 Noah is derived from the Hebrew root נ.ו.ח, meaning rest, ease, or pleasantness (menuhah), while yenahameinu derives from the root נ.ח.מ, meaning comfort, relief, or soothing (nehamah). These qualities, like their roots, may appear similar, but they are distinct in an important way. The first describes an unchanging state of calm, the character of a thing at rest and tranquility. The second describes a change in state, a movement from discomfort to comfort, from pain to relief. In fact, נ.ח.מ can also mean “reconsider,” as in, “to reconsider punishment and provide relief.”
Noah’s father Lemekh has either misunderstood him or misnamed him; Noah is, so to speak, missing a mem (מ). Rashi, ever the sensitive reader, picks up on this as well:
"זה ינחמנו." …אין טעם הלשון נופל על השם ואתה צריך לקרות שמו מנחם.
“This one will provide us with relief” …the meaning of this language does not match the name. Instead you would have to call him, “Menahem.”
Menahem is, in fact, one of the names the Talmud (in Sanhedrin 98b) attributes to the coming messiah, the one whose role is to deliver us from a state of suffering. A “Noah,” meanwhile, does not provide relief. He is already in a state of calm—perhaps even as the world around him suffers.5
R. Umberto Cassuto, the 20th century Italian biblical scholar with an unusually sharp appreciation for the Torah’s literary sophistication, also notes all the irony layered onto Noah’s naming, and adds:
לשם נח רומז הכתוב אחר כך כמה פעמים במשחקי מילים: ונח מצא חן (ו , ח); ותנח התבה (ח, ד); מנוח לכף רגלה (ח , ט); את ריח הניחוח (ח , כ׳׳א).
The verses afterwards continue to play word games that hint at Noah’s name: “Noah found favor (חן) in God’s eyes” (Genesis 6:8), “The ark rested (תנח)” (Genesis 8:5), “A resting place (מנוח) for the [dove’s] feet” (Genesis 8:9), “[the Eternal smelled] a pleasing scent (ריח ניחח)” (Genesis 8:21).6
The first of these “word game” examples offers us yet another “near-miss” attribution to the meaning of Noah’s name: God finds hein (grace/favor) in him, some extraordinary quality that catches attention from the heavens and establishes a particular bond. But in fact, here on earth he is Noah, made up of the same two letters (ח, נ), but inverted (נ, ח)—as if he had become just the inverse of what God had seen in him.
But the last three examples Cassuto highlights all play off the root from which Noah’s name is actually formed, the one that means rest or pleasantness. The ark rested; the dove sought a resting place; the scent of Noah’s offering was pleasing. Indeed, as we move forward into the Flood, we start to see Noah’s name—and his easy, tranquil essence—reflected everywhere around him.
What does all this wordplay with Noah’s name mean? All three of the Torah’s attempts to ascribe meaning to Noah’s name—comfort (nehamah), grace (hein), and rest (menuhah)—represent potentials: the men he could have been. These were qualities that existed in him as latent possibilities, up to him to realize or not. All human hopes were upon him to be a comforter; could he have been Menahem, the redeemer? God looked down and saw someone imbued with a special quality of grace, someone with whom a unique bond could have been formed. Should he have been called Hanan, the favored one? But ultimately, he became Noah, the man of menuhah, the one calm presence standing before a coming storm.
Now, menuhah is not a bad thing; it is a quality we celebrate in this tradition.7 And menuhah may be just the thing one needs in a time of crisis: a calm and steady hand. Noah was, in other words, just the man for this job—a righteous man in his generation.
But menuhah is not the virtue that will animate the rest of the Torah. Our story will need someone restless, a wanderer—someone like Abraham, who actively calls upon that quality that God saw in Noah: “אם נא מצאתי חן בעיניך - if I have found favor in your eyes” (Genesis 18:3)—and then uses his special connection to demand God not kill the righteous among the wicked. Eventually this story will need an agitator, who will bring relief to human suffering—someone like Moses, who will again and again defend his people from punishment and entreat God to: “שוב מחרון אפיך והנחם - relent from your fury and reconsider” (Exodus 32:12) . This is the nature of the covenant that we will be concerned with from here on out. It is an anxious covenant, one deeply concerned with the suffering of the world. And it is an intimate covenant, one that presumes such a close relationship with God that one can call upon God’s favor and use it to demand relief from that suffering.
Noah’s covenant, in contrast, is not a covenant of intimacy, a special promise made to him alone. It is a general agreement, made with him “and all living creatures, for all generations to come” (Genesis 9:12). Nor is Noah’s a covenant of change, but a commitment to the status quo:
וַהֲקִמֹתִי אֶת בְּרִיתִי אִתְּכֶם וְלֹא יִכָּרֵת כׇּל בָּשָׂר עוֹד מִמֵּי הַמַּבּוּל וְלֹא יִהְיֶה עוֹד מַבּוּל לְשַׁחֵת הָאָרֶץ:
I will establish my covenant with you all: never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.
Noah never even tried to persuade God to relent from destroying people. But after the destruction, he does secure a truce—a willingness to keep things as they were. Not relief, but rest.
Noah, then, functions in this story like one other variation on the root of his name, one drawn from the lexicon of Torah trop: he is an etnahta (אתנחתא), a pause. He is the holding place before the real action begins. Noah has an important function to serve: to maintain one space of tranquility while everything around him is destroyed and prepared for a restart. That is no small task, and he accomplishes it. But when the task is over, the pause comes to an end, and Noah—like the ריח ניחוח, that pleasing scent—fades away like a vapor.
1 The next immediate verse in the Torah begins the Tower of Babel story (only nine verses long) and then the Torah resumes with genealogy, but now begins one that starts with Noah’s son Shem (although it does not name him there as Noah’s son), and then traces the family of Shem, one generation after another to the generation of Avram. Then the story of Avram’s family begins. So the Tower of Babel—the story of “דור הפלגה - the generation of scattering”—effectively severs Noah from the Abraham story, and symbolically, perhaps, erases the memory of Noah from the world. Noah is mentioned only three other times in Tanakh, and each with some degree of dismissal: 1. In Isaiah 54:9, where he has become associated especially with the devastating water of the Flood—now called “מי נח - the waters of Noah.” And then we are told, in God’s name, “I swore I would never again bring the waters of Noah to the earth.” 2. In Ezekiel 14:14, where he is described (along with Daniel and Job) as one of three men who, in another time of catastrophe, would save themselves with their righteousness. Lest we miss the suspicious emphasis on only “themselves,” Ezekiel continues (14:16) and adds that those three men “would save neither sons nor daughters; they alone would be saved, but the land would become a desolation.” 3. In 1 Chronicles 1:1-4, where he is not even mentioned as the subject of a sentence, but just in passing, as one of a list.
2 This debate actually appears in both the Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 108a, between R. Yohanan and Reish Lakish, and in Bereishit Rabbah 30:9, between R. Yehudah and R. Nehemiah. But the direct comparison to the generation of Abraham is Rashi’s own insertion. The talmudic version simply considers “other generations.” The midrashic version does contrast Noah with specific figures, but they are: “the generation of Moses, or the generation of Samuel.”
3 In the words of R. Yehudah Loew, the Maharal of Prague: “השם הוא מורה על עצם הדבר - The name teaches about the essence of the thing” (נצח ישראל, פרק מ). Indeed, we considered the lessons taught by the names of God in last week’s Dvar Torah on Parashat Bereishit, “The Grammar of God."
4 Most Hebrew words are built from a three-letter root. That root can be used in various forms, and with different vowelizations, to produce many different kinds of words that all share some basic core meaning. Drawing connections between words that share the same root is one of the Torah’s primary literary techniques. A naming is perhaps the most explicit way to draw that connection. The character doing the naming generally suggests first what the name will be, then explains why that name was chosen. And there is generally some linguistic connection between the name and the explanation based on a shared root. Jeremy Tabick pointed out to me that namings with dubious derivation occur many other times in the Torah’s narrative. The name ראובן (Reuven) appears to mean, “Look (ראו), a son! (בן),” but Leah explicitly says that the name means, “כי ראה ה’ בעניי - for the Eternal has seen my suffering” (Genesis 29:32). Another of Leah’s children, יששכר (Issachar), is ostensibly so named because “God has given me my reward (שכרי)” (Genesis 30:18). But one wonders if the name has at least as much to do with the language Leah has used two verses earlier, when she says to Jacob, “שכר שכרתיך - I have rented you [for the night]” (30:16. David Henkin once suggested to me that this may be the reason for the doubled ש). Even the naming of places sometimes has unclear derivation. When Jacob sees that the place he has arrived at is “מחנה אלקים - God’s camp” and he responds by naming it, “מחניים - two camps” (Genesis 32:3), that seems to have more to do with the “שני מחנות - two camps” into which Jacob divides his family and flocks just a few verses later (32:8). However, all these other examples still do actually have the same linguistic root as something being named. The confusion in Noah’s naming is different: נ.ו.ח and נ.ח.מ are similar-sounding, but actually different roots, which makes the naming of Noah seem more like a mistake than an ambiguity.
5 Indeed, immediately after Noah is born, instead of relief from suffering, what the world gets is further suffering, announced in language that reminds us of Noah’s naming: “The Eternal regretted (va-yenahem) making humanity on earth, and was pained in the heart. The Eternal said, ‘I will erase humanity, which I have created, from the face of the earth…’” (Genesis 6:6-7). That, of course, is the announcement of the coming Flood—the one that Noah and his family will survive, but not save anyone else from. But the language of regretting here (va-yenahem) shares a root with the above language for providing relief; “regretting” is a secondary meaning of נ.ח.מ, and though it may seem to express a very sentiment different from “comforting,” both describe a response to something undesired that requires an act of changing—a reconsidering. The repetition of the root we saw just nine verses before, but now with a distinct shift in connotation, creates an ironic commentary on the intention that was set for Noah’s destiny. No, he did not provide relief from human suffering; on the contrary, humanity is about to suffer more greatly than ever before.
6 The word ניחח seems to have an extra ח, but is in fact still based on the root נ.ו.ח. This doubling of the final consonant is called “reduplication” and occurs in Hebrew for various reasons. For a helpful overview of this phenomenon, see the entry on “Reduplication” by Outi Bat-El, in the Encyclopedia of Hebrew Language and Linguistics, Vol. 3, 2013. Later scholars have continued to build on Cassuto’s connections here. Two excellent examples are R. Mordechai Breuer, in Pirkei Bereishit, p. 33, and Judy Klitsner, in Subversive Sequels, p. 5.
7 Menuhah is especially praised in connection to Shabbat. We find the word many times in our Shabbat and holiday liturgy, which speak of God giving us “שבתות למנוחה - shabbatot limnuhah,” and in many Shabbat Zemirot, such as “מנוחה ושמחה - Menuhah ve-Simhah.” See also Rashi’s commentary on Genesis 2:2, where we read that “On the seventh day, God finished all the work… and then rested on the seventh day.” Rashi wonders what God is “finishing” if the world has already been made and asks: “What was still lacking in the world? Menuhah. When Shababt came, menuhah came and then the work was finished.”