Heroes who did the impossible,
Dreamers who lived the dream.
-Harriet Monroe, “Heroes of Peace”
What are a hero’s limits? From the myths of ancient Greeks to the headlines of global pages, we learn about herculean individuals armed with bravery, vision, and will. Even the term “herculean” was born from the mythological Roman hero, Hercules, a mortal more powerful than any man (and even some gods). We position heroes as divine beings in their own right, divorced from human travails. Their troubles live on different planes than the universal mundanity of the human experience. Effectively, their work is effortless.
Noah would appear to be one such hero.
Corruption, oppression, and injustice take hold of a once “very good” existence, the Torah records, leading up to Parashat Noah (Bereishit 1:31; 6:5-7). Now, creation forsakes its Creator with harmonic ease, and God hopes to buttress its last basis for survival. But as the world proves itself beyond salvageability, destruction emerges on the horizon like the morning sun—slow, steady, and with a haunting anticipation. God, the Creator with His pencil in hand, sees no alternative but to erase His work and start anew. He sets His sights on Noah to be humankind’s hero and sketches a path forward: Noah will be God’s partner in etching a new human form, a new mode of being, into the world. God’s dream can live on.
The story unfolds as such. Noah builds a boat at God’s behest, the flooding waters rampage across the land, and the history pages are torn asunder. On this other side, Noah emerges as God’s new first human being.
We learn a great deal about the world in which Noah lives, but nothing about the world that lives within Noah. I aim to explore the latter. His emotional turbulence and mental resilience are instead encoded, ever so quietly, in the spaces of the text. But on the surface, he remains nearly unscathed—a victorious and whole hero.
We now embark to trace the footprints of Noah’s inner trek, to understand, perhaps, the traumatic effects of heroic destiny, the unspoken secrets of valor, and how it shades Noah’s story with the vivid colors of a real, human experience.
I. Destined to Save
“And Lemekh lived 182 years, and he birthed a son. And he called his name ‘Noah,’ saying, ‘This one will yenahameinu from our actions and from our hands’ distress from the land that YHVH cursed’” (Bereishit 5:28-29).
In his infancy, Noah is already assigned a destiny: the one who will yenahameinu. The word’s root, n-h-m, is perhaps most recognizable from the context of nihum aveilim, comforting or consoling mourners. To understand a word’s essence, though, the root must be seen in its most original, inclusive form. Malbim says n-h-m is about changing spirits, attitudes, thoughts—altering the state of what is into the vision of what should be. Noah’s destiny is to be the changemaker, the hope-giver. In Lemekh’s eyes, that change is in agricultural toil at painstaking exertion. Noah, to his father, will offer an industrialization of sorts to alleviate the earth’s painstaking toll. But still, the Torah hints at a larger purpose looming in the background.
Rashi, wondering why the text identifies Noah as “ben” [son] before revealing his name, quotes an explanation in Midrash Rabbah that “ben” alludes to the word nivneh, meaning “is built,” as in, “that from him, the world is built.” Builder, changemaker, hope-harbinger, Noah is situated in the spotlight of greatness, or more correctly, heroic greatness. “Meritorious are the righteous,” the Zohar comments, “who are imprinted with the mark of the King’s ring, for they are marked with His name.” God’s signet, as it were, is etched into Noah’s selfhood.
Destiny claims Noah mere moments into his life. He is snatched from the bliss of mediocrity, the ease of being ordinary, and thrown into brewing turmoil. Yet, at this point, the Torah mentions not an explicit word of impending doom. Noah’s introduction appears in the accounting of lineage. Were the story to end here, there would be no challenging questions. A few verses later, we are told that Noah lives 500 years and bore three sons—Shem, Ham, and Yefet. Still, no suspicion of problems is evident.
As humankind multiplies and reproduces, populating the earth with exceptional success, we are told of trouble’s emergence: Benei ha-elokim saw the human women and ogled after their beauty, and “they took women from whomever they chose” (Bereishit 6:2). There is dispute as to whether benei ha-elokim refers to divine beings (as “Elokim” can sometimes refer) or to powerful human leaders (as “elokim” can also refer). Baked within the confusion is the consensus that the mighty—entrusted to administer justice and uphold righteousness—subjugated the vulnerable to their desires. Ramban contends that they openly practiced injustice, abducting married women for themselves. There were no formal authorities to oversee the benei ha-elokim and enforce accountability.
In his distress, God sets a 120-year term for rectification, a divine timer stifling His justification of hope. “I cannot forever grapple” with choosing “whether to destroy or to have mercy,” Rashi reads as God’s apparent distress. Things only worsen.
“Such were the heroes of old,” the Torah narrates, “the men of name” (Bereishit 6:4). Wreaking terror and havoc, perpetuating oppression—these were humankind’s boldest and brightest. God saw the future, Seforno explains, and the current story only ended in darkness. For something to change, something must change. God’s hope runs out.
In describing God’s shift, the Torah twice uses verbs linked to n-h-m, which in context signify God’s deep regret and changed mind, as it were, toward humankind (Bereishit 6:6-7). Radak and Ibn Ezra emphasize that the text speaks in “human language,” that God does not literally experience emotions or thoughts as we do; rather, the Torah chooses an accessible medium to communicate its ideas. Here, we read of God’s distress and personal misgivings. Hope fallen from the heavens, banished from reality, is painful. The midrash ruminates over this, how the all-knowing God could mourn despite His foreknowledge expecting this outcome. R. Yehoshua retorts that parents know their children will eventually die, and asks: Then why cry at their death? The known tragedies are, indeed, still tragedies (Bereishit Rabbah 27:4).
There does appear a need, a chance, of reconciliation for God, for someone to change the reality, to restore hope, to rebuild the world. Noah—the one pronounced to yenahameinu—is the apparent, suited candidate to save God from this cataclysmic end. Noah’s destiny preceded his calling, and now, he will be the savior for humankind—and God.
II. The Righteous Candidate
What makes Noah worth saving? Which rubric is used to decide the fate of life or death? How did Noah score to satisfaction? The inclusion of origin stories varies throughout the Torah. Readers are left to decipher encoded comments from the text or submit to the answer’s unknowability. In Noah’s case, prior to God’s command to him, we are briefly told of his birth and his birthing, along with a moral description. Otherwise, he remains an enigma—a hollow figure absent a context. Perhaps that itself is commensurate with the terse pasuk following God’s determination to eliminate the earth: “And Noah found hein in the eyes of YHVH” (Bereishit 6:8).
This palindrome—Noah and hein—suggests a mirrored relationship, an alternative self peeking beneath the shadowed curtain. Noah embodies hein in some sense, harboring its essence in unconscious concealment. God’s eyes see through external garments. Hein, to Seforno, connotes groundless favor, undeserving compassion—inexplicable mercy. Noah was unworthy of God’s graciousness, Seforno says, for while he was innocent and righteous, he failed to moralize others of God. This theme of Noah as an inanimate actor is found throughout the commentaries.
We are told that Noah was “a righteous man, perfect in his generations, with Elokim Noah walked” (Bereishit 6:9). These praises hold Noah in high regard—brandishing him as infallible by all accounts: morally just, wholly unblemished, God-conscious. It would appear that this tiers Noah exceptional in all categories, the obvious selection for humankind’s salvation.
The commentaries are less sure.
For Ramban, the text speaks with complete accuracy: Noah was thoroughly pure and complete, worthy of saving. Others, such as Seforno above, contend otherwise. Rashi cites a Talmudic dispute in Sanhedrin 108a that takes issue with the conditional clause “in his generations.” Why, it’s asked, is this included? One reading suggests Noah was righteous despite the wickedness of his generations; had he been placed in another, how much more so! The dissenter reads differently, seeing Noah’s assessment as relative, not absolute; “in his generations,” and not in other generations.
It almost seems as if there is an edge against Noah, an assumed supposition of his faulty nature, despite the Torah more plainly saying otherwise. Two midrashim complicate this question:
“With Elokim Noah walked” (Bereishit 6:8). … R. Yehuda says it’s a parable to a commander who has two sons—one big and one small. He says to the small one, “Walk with me,” and says to the big one, “Come, walk before me.” So it is with Avraham, whose power was beautiful, “walk before Me and be perfect” (Bereishit 17:1), but Noah, whose power was bad, “with Elokim Noah walked” (Bereishit Rabbah 30:10).
Noah was good, but Avraham was great (although R. Yehuda is less than generous to Noah).
Koho, his power, lacked. Something circulating within Noah’s spirit, kinetic energy waiting for release, was lesser than Avraham’s. A great hesitancy, an innate aversion, prods its head when Noah is evaluated on his own terms. The Midrash, apparently, echoes this unbridled urge to weigh Noah against successors, to frame him against others. Another midrash brandishes this approach with greater fury:
Noah said to Moshe, “I am greater than you, for I was saved from the generation of the Flood.” Moshe said to him, “I am more exalted than you—you saved yourself and did not have in you the power to save your generation. But I, I saved myself and I saved my generation who were liable for destruction because of the calf.” Whence? As it is said, “And God changed His mind of the evil that He had said to do to His people” (Shemot 32:14). To what is the matter similar? To two ships which were in the sea and had within them two captains. One of them saved himself but not his ship, and one saved himself and his ship. Whom did they praise? Not the one who saved himself and his ship? So too with Noah, who only saved himself, but Moshe saved himself and his generation (Devarim Rabbah 11:3).
“Ve-lo hayah bekha ko’ah,” Moshe says—“and you did not have in you the power, the power to save others, to protect your ship, your generation, from destruction.” Herein lies the fundamental critique leveled against Noah: he could not be the people’s savior.
III. Silent Obedience and Complicity
In the most technical sense, Noah did no wrong. Nowhere does God request that he save others, speak to others, or even consider others. God’s instruction is sanitized of that concern. And indeed, Noah obeys God’s every word—evocatively so.
God commands Noah, “Make for yourself an ark of gofer wood,” followed by detailed requirements of the design (Bereishit 6:14-16). Noah is further told that God will make a covenant with him, and that “you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives” should board the ship—with the added injunction to store food “for you and for them” (ibid., 6:18, 21). Some pesukim later, God—with itching repetition—says, “Come, you and all your household, to the ark, for I have seen that you were righteous before me in this generation” (ibid., 7:1).
Twice, the Torah accentuates Noah’s compliance: “And Noah did like all that Elokim commanded him, so he did” (ibid., 6:22). “And Noah did like all that YHVH commanded him” (ibid., 7:5). As the floodwaters rise over the land, moving with rage and impending treachery, Noah remains a loyal soldier. That, though, was not what God wanted.
When God first tells Noah of the earth’s fate, He cites one of the people’s many moral failures: “Because the earth is filled with hamas” (ibid., 6:13), understood as violence and robbery. Two pesukim earlier, as God observes the world’s failure, Ralbag writes a chilling comment. The people committed hamas, he says, “before the greats and leaders, because they were unashamed, and there was no one to chastise them for the evil of their acts.” No accountability. Anarchy took hold of the world, but if one could have cried out to reprove injustice, perhaps it could have been different. God wanted the people to change—and Noah to fight for that.
Sometimes, one chooses to speak in hints, clues, for the recipient to trace the dotted lines and discover the speaker’s true desires. God spoke to Noah in such a manner.
“There are multitude manners of rescue and relief before God,” Rashi says, “[so] why trouble [Noah] with building [the ark]? For the people to see and inquire,” he answers, “prompting Noah to inform them of God’s plans—Perhaps they will repent.” Initially, God gave the people 120 years for teshuvah, a clear indication that He desired change over calamity. And yet, not only would Noah not perform such activity, but he would not even initiate it. The building, not Noah, would induce conversation.
Ancillary repetitions by God—“The end of all flesh has come before me” (ibid., 6:13), “and I will destroy them with the earth” (ibid.), “and I will bring the floodwaters upon the earth to destroy all flesh” (ibid., 6:17), “I will eliminate all of existence” (ibid., 7:4)—scream to Noah. Why, in varying forms and descriptions, does God continue to issue the same doom? It appears the reason is to awaken, to arouse an impassioned moral contesting within Noah—if not toward the people than toward God. Everyone will die, God intimates, and that’s My plan. But Noah sits still.
Throughout the bulk of the story, Noah utters not a single word. He acts in silence, following God’s instruction with mechanical devotion. So much so that commentaries spot his dependence on guidance as powerful enough to drown him in death. Noah and his family entered the ark, the Torah records, “because of the waters of the flood” (ibid., 7:7). Interpreting this phrase, Rashi classifies Noah as one of “small faith,” only entering the ark because the waters forced him, pushed him, in. “Were it not for the waters reaching his ankles, he would not have entered the ark” (Bereishit Rabbah 32:6).
Even faced with his own death, Noah cannot act. If not God, then the very waters threatening his life will guide him. The single exception whilst in the ark is his sending the raven and dove to scout the earth to learn if the flood had subsided. When it does, God again must direct Noah: “Leave the ark” (Bereishit 8:16).
Noah’s silent obedience suggests more than a reserved personality. It hints at complicity. Destruction breathes into his ears, humankind’s extinction cries from below, and God anticipates objection. Nothing. Noah cannot approach a single person to warn them, nor can he articulate a single word, a single expression, of dissatisfaction. It almost paints him as an unwilling actor, a slave to God, incapable of harnessing independence, of fulfilling his call for heroism—before God or man. But upon leaving the ark and entering a new world, Noah becomes someone new. “And Noah built an altar for YHVH, and he took from every pure animal and every pure bird, and he offered whole burnt offerings on the altar” (ibid., 8:20). Action of this kind is unprecedented for him. What explains it? The Midrash says:
“And Noah built an altar for YHVH” (Bereishit 8:20). “He built” [vayiven] is written; he contemplated [nitbonen, related to vayiven]. He said, “For what did the Holy One, Blessed be He, command me to [bring] more pure [animals] than impure [ones]? Rather, to make an offering from them.” Immediately, “And he took from every pure animal, etc.” (Bereishit Rabbah 34:9).
He thought about it. Noah took moments to reflect upon not what God said, but why God said. That prompted God to swear that He will never again bring a flood as He did then. Action engenders change, even from God. It begs the question of what could have been had Noah paused earlier and wondered about God’s plans. Perhaps the story would have been one of redemption, not extermination.
IV. The Trauma of Heroism
The story is not over. Although perhaps it should be. Until now, from the plain text alone, we encounter an eerily simple plot: Earth sins, God destroys, Noah lives, humanity begins (again). The hero remains unscathed and emerges victorious. Not quite. It’s only afterward that the other side of heroic destiny rears its head.
In the aftermath of humankind’s extinction, God implores Noah and his sons to reproduce: “Be fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth” (Bereishit 9:1). Then, God establishes a covenant with Noah and his family. A disconcerting feeling emerges. The God who created life wiped it clean, and now, He tells you (Noah) to start anew. Though He swore to never perform this cycle again (at least with a flood), a tremor surely could have emerged within Noah. The Midrash agrees:
Noah said to Him, “Master of the world, maybe You will retract [Your word] and bring a flood.” He said to him, “Not so. I swear that I will not bring another flood upon the world” (Midrash Tanhuma, Noah 11).
What if evil would pollute his grandchildren, and then God would seek to eliminate them? Interestingly, for the remainder of the narrative portion, neither Noah nor his children are intimate with their wives, nor do they beget children, at least not in the text. What happens next is sudden and unambiguous. Though in some ways, not surprising: “Vayahel Noah ish ha-adamah, vayita karem” (Bereishit 9:20).
The first words, vayahel Noah, means “Noah began,” or twisted, turned, anguished, profaned, polluted. A whirlpool of meanings descends upon him, a torrent of change. A metamorphosis takes shape, a new beginning, that reconfigures old forms in painful strides, growing pains. This is not growth, though, it’s degradation, profanity, pollution. Noah decays. In what sense? He becomes ish ha-adamah, “the Man of the Land.” In this new mode of being, Noah is enjoined to earth, identified with the soil. He is drawn down from his heights, signified by his first course of action: vayita karem—“he planted a vineyard.” After sleepless nights aboard ship, sustaining every caged creature, enjoying no marital pleasures, Noah yearns for groundedness. To slip into comatose consciousness where bliss and pleasure live in stationary gel, Noah plants a vineyard.
“Vayeisht min ha-yayin vayishkar, vayitgal be-tokh aholoh.” (Bereishit 9:21).
Vayeisht min ha-yayin vayishkar—Noah “drank from the wine and became drunk.” R. Hiyya bar Abba remarked, “On the same day he planted, on the same day he drank, on the same day he was humiliated” (Bereishit Rabbah 36:4).
Noah acts with impulsive immediacy. Swiftness accompanies his derision. Elsewhere, when the Midrash recounts the angels asking God on whose behalf they should praise God, harsh words are issued about Noah:
[When] Noah came, they said to Him, “This is he?” He said to them, “This is a drunkard,” as it’s written, “And he drank of the wine, etc.” (Midrash Tanhuma, Kedoshim 2).
Noah is rebranded a drunkard, someone debased from reality and imprisoned in desire. Vayitgal be-tokh aholoh—“And he was revealed within his tent.” Physically, he was exposed, open, vulnerable, to looming violation. Gur Aryeh reads “vayitgal” as a more tarnishing expression—Noah came to separate and exile himself [related to the root of galut, the word for “exile”] from God. Having once been in deveikut, connection, attachment, to God, Noah now sits estranged from Him, caught in the curtains of his tent, a world isolated from the pillars where he previously stood.
What drives Noah to these ends is not delineated. It appears that, though he withstood the flood’s violent rampage, he fell susceptible to earth’s quiet demeanor. Within himself, Noah is driven to ha-adamah, to become enveloped by the earth’s serenity. And alcohol is the potion that transforms him into ish ha-adamah.
As if Noah’s state is not bad enough, impropriety is thrust upon him in external humiliation and violation. Ham, Noah’s youngest son, saw “his father’s nakedness, and he told his two brothers outside” (Bereishit 9:22). It appears as a moment of disrespect, a shattering of paternal authority by the son. Yet, upon awakening, Noah “knew what was done to him by his smallest son” (Bereishit 9:24). He responds,
“Cursed be Canaan. The lowest of slaves shall he be to his brothers.” And he said, “Blessed be YHVH, the God of Shem, and Canaan will be a slave to them” (Bereishit 9:25-26).
Through the commentaries and Midrash, it becomes clear that Ham did far more to his father than disrespect him. He violated him—sexually—a transgression of selfhood and safety, not least of which is trust. Noah, an inaudible actor for years, is pummeled beyond what his quietude can endure. He speaks, for the first time for us: Arur—“cursed,” he proclaims, an issuance perhaps surging from vicissitudes survived to travails revived.
There is a certain trauma hidden in the story of Noah. Born to save, destined for it, he was righteous in adhering to God’s word, holding His hands as he navigated the topographical struggles of his journey as God’s “chosen one.”
All trauma, Freud says, contains “an excess of demand.” Dr. Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg explains:
At points, one is addressed by something that is sensed as “indigestible.” One can’t do anything with what has presented itself; one can’t translate it into a workable project. To be traumatized is to experience every attempt at naming, at interpretation, as leaving a remainder. Something that resists language remains of the unfathomable impact of the past.
The demands that fell upon Noah appear to be such an excess: the sleepless nights, shivers aboard ship, emotional tremors, human fear, daunting faith, flooding responsibility. All while life withered outside the ark’s small window. From God’s very first recruitment, Noah failed to receive the full extent of his mission. He could not process the hints, the whispered intentions, beneath God’s spoken words. The totality of this task asked too much of him. There remained an excess of demand.
Yenahameinu, Noah was said to be—the changemaker, peacemaker, savior, for his father on earth and his Father in Heaven. In this story of global and personal destruction, we wonder at what cost.
 Malbim to Bereishit 5:29, s.v. “vayikra et shemo Noah leimor, zeh yenahameinu.”
 Rashi to Bereishit 5:28, s.v. “vayoled bein.”
 Zohar, Noah 2:16.
 Ramban to Bereishit 6:2, s.v. “benei ha-elokim.”
 Rashi to Bereishit 6:3, s.v. “le-olam.”
 Seforno to Bereishit 6:5, s.v. “ve-khol yeitzer mahshevot libo.”
 Radak to Bereishit 6:6, s.v. “vayinahem H’ ”; Ibn Ezra ad loc., s.v. “vayi-nahem H’.”
 Seforno to Bereishit 6:8, s.v. “ve-Noah matza hein.”
 Ramban to Bereishit 6:9, s.v. “be-dorotav.”
 Ralbag to Bereishit 6:11, s.v. “lifnei ha-Elokim.”
 Rashi to Bereishit 6:14, s.v. “aseh lekha teivat.”
 Rashi to Bereishit 7:7, s.v. “mipenei mei ha-mabul.”
 Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, The Hidden Order of Intimacy: Reflections on the Book of Leviticus (New York: Schocken, 2022), 204.