If Johannes Gutenberg (inventor of the printing press) had succeeded as a mirror salesman, would literacy remain a luxury that only society’s wealthiest members could afford? If Martin Luther (leader of the Protestant Reformation) hadn’t pledged his life to God after lightning nearly struck him and his horse, would the Catholic Church still rule over Western Europe? If Edward Jenner (father of immunology) had ignored the advice of the mentor who encouraged him to “try, don’t think,” would human life expectancy ever have eclipsed fifty years of age? These questions, and others like them, belong to a field of study known as “counterfactual history.” Its practitioners invite us to imagine what our world might look like today had the events of yesterday unfolded differently.
At the start of this week’s Torah portion, we encounter an intriguing “what-if” scenario of this sort. The Torah states: “Noah was a righteous man. He was perfect in his generation; he walked with God.” (Gen. 6:9). Hazal debate the meaning of this verse:
“In his generation”—there was a dispute between R. Yehuda and R. Nehemiah regarding the meaning of this clause. One said: Noah was deemed righteous only when compared to the members of his corrupt generation, i.e. the generation of the flood and of the Tower of Babel. Had he lived in the generation of Abraham, however, he would not have been anybody special… The other said: If Noah managed to remain righteous despite the negative influence of his contemporaries, then he could have been even more righteous had he lived in another generation!
“Noah walked with God”—Noah required God’s support in order to distance himself from the evils of his generation. That is why the Torah tells us that God walked “with” Noah, i.e. beside him… With regard to Abraham, by contrast, God commanded: “Walk in front of Me” (Gen. 17:1). Similarly, it is said of the patriarchs: “My fathers walked in front of God” (Gen. 48:15). [The patriarchs did not require divine assistance in order to remain righteous]: they walked in front God, as it were, taking initiative to perform His will (Tanhuma Noah 5).
In this Midrash, R. Yehuda and R. Nehemiah play “hypothetical history” with Noah, speculating how his legacy might have been affected had he been born several centuries later. It is thanks to these sages that Jewish educators throughout the ages have traditionally introduced their students to Noah by contrasting him, either favorably or otherwise, with our patriarch Abraham. Today there are dozens of essays and lectures available on this topic, both in English and in Hebrew.
Yet perhaps there is another patriarch with whom we might fruitfully compare Noah: Abraham’s son, Isaac. In fact, the sense we get as we carefully read over the Biblical text is that it deliberately casts these characters as foils for each other. Consider:
- The announcement of Noah’s birth, like that of Isaac’s impending birth, occurs immediately after we are informed that society has become steeped in immorality. Before Noah is born, the Torah states: “Hashem saw that the wickedness of man was great upon the earth, and that every product of the thoughts of his heart was but evil always” (Gen. 6:5). Before Hashem reveals that Sarah will give birth to Isaac, He declares: “The outcry of Sodom and Gomorrah has become great, for their sin has been exceedingly grave” (Gen. 18:20).
- Both Noah and Isaac are tasked with repairing the world. After Noah’s birth, his father says of him: “This one will bring us relief from our deeds and from the sorrow of our hands, from the earth which Hashem has cursed” (Gen. 5:29). Before disclosing to Abraham that his wife will give birth to Isaac, Hashem says: “I have known Abraham, that he will command instruct his children and his household after him to guard the way of Hashem and to act righteously and justly…” (Gen. 18:19).
- Both Noah and Isaac are explicitly identified as the fathers of important nations (גיום) who end up separating (פ.ר.ד) from each other. Of Noah, the Torah states: “These are the families of Noah’s descendants, according to their generations, by their nations; and from these the nations spread out after the flood” (Gen. 10:32). Of Isaac’s wife, the Torah states: “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from your insides shall be separated…” (Gen. 25:23).
- The main event recorded in the biographies of both Noah and Isaac center around water (מים). In Noah’s day, “the fountains of the great deep burst forth and the floodgates of heaven were opened” (Gen. 7:11). In Isaac’s day, the Philistines “stopped up Abraham’s wells and filled them with earth” (Gen. 26:15); Isaac re-digs them in order to access the “waters of life” (Gen. 26:19).
- The symbolic numbers 40 and 60/600 feature significantly in the lives of both Noah and Isaac. Noah enters the ark at the age of 600 (Gen. 7:6) and the floodwaters fall for 40 days and nights (Gen. 7:12). Isaac marries at 40 (Gen. 25:20) and his children are born when he is 60 (Gen. 25:26).
- Noah builds an altar (מזבח) and sacrifices burnt offerings (עולות) to Hashem after Hashem saves him from the flood (Gen. 8:20). Isaac is about to be sacrificed as a burnt offering (עולה) on an altar (מזבח) by his father Abraham when Hashem intervenes to save him (see Gen. 20). (Later, Isaac too builds an altar—see Gen. 26:25).
The parallels between Noah and Isaac suggest that they are destined to play similar roles in the drama of Biblical history. Both are surrounded by a society of sinners whose ways they are responsible for mending. Both father nations whose reach extends across the Ancient Near East. Both undergo ordeals with water, and both offer, or are offered as, sacrifices of fire. Finally, both are associated with the numbers 40 and 60/600–numbers which tend to signify some sort of “ideal” throughout Tanakh.
Nevertheless, there are also some key details that separate Isaac from Noah. In particular, disparities emerge when we look at the final episode in each man’s life:
- At the end of their lives, both Noah (Gen. 9:21) and Isaac (Gen. 27:26) drink wine (וישת יין) in their tents. But whereas Noah prepares his own wine and consumes it alone, Isaac’s wine is prepared by his son, who joins Isaac as he enjoys his drink.
- Noah drinks until he becomes intoxicated (Gen. 9:21). Isaac does not become intoxicated.
- Both Noah and Isaac receive an unsolicited visit from their youngest son after they drink. These sons—Ham (Gen. 9:24) and Jacob (Gen. 27:15), respectively—are each referred to by scripture as “the small son” (בן הקטן).
- Ham takes advantage of Noah, who is drunk, by “gazing at his nakedness and sharing it with his two brothers outside” (Gen. 9:22). Likewise, Jacob takes advantage of Isaac, who is blind, by posing as his older brother Esau and stealing his birthright (see Gen. 27).
- Both Noah and Isaac experience a moment of sudden clarity wherein they discover what their sons have done to them. Of Noah, the Torah states: “And Noah awoke from his wine and learned what his small son had done to him” (Gen. 9:24). Of Isaac, the Torah states: “Then Isaac trembled in very great perplexity [and figured out what had happened]…” (Gen. 27:33).
- Noah reacts by cursing Ham: “And Noah said, cursed is Canaan [Ham’s son]—a slave of slaves shall he be to his brothers!” (Gen. 9:26). Isaac, by contrast, upholds Jacob’s blessing—“Indeed, he shall remain blessed” (Gen. 27:33)—while blessing Esau as well (Gen. 27:39).
- Noah does not address Ham directly when he curses him—he speaks about him, but not to him. At no point in the Noah narrative, in fact, does its protagonist utter even a single word to any of his family members! By contrast, Isaac’s first recorded words are drawn from a conversation that he has with his father (Gen. 22:7), and his last recorded words are drawn from a conversation that he has with his son (Gen. 28:4).
If Noah and Isaac begin their lives on roughly the same foot, they end their lives as polar opposites. Noah is drunk and alone; Isaac is sober and surrounded by family. Both their children step out of line. But whereas Noah curses his son, Isaac blesses both of his.
In light of this background, it is instructive to note one final similarity between Noah and Isaac: their narratives open with the exact same phrase. The first verse of the Torah portion that recounts Noah’s life story states: “אלה תולדות נח”—“These are the generations of Noah” (Gen. 6:9). Likewise, the first verse of the Torah portion that recounts Isaac’s life story states: “ואלה תולדות יצחק”—“These are the generations of Isaac” (Gen. 25:19).
Yet even though these verses function as literary equivalents, we don’t treat them as such. Generally speaking, the title of a given Torah portion is drawn from its incipit: the first (significant) word in its opening verse. It should come to us as no surprise, then, that the title of Noah’s Torah portion is “פרשת נח”—“the Torah portion of Noah.” What is strange, however, is that we do not call the Torah portion that recounts Isaac’s life “פרשת יצחק”—“the Torah portion of Isaac.” Instead we call it “פרשת תולדות”—“the Torah portion of generations.” That is inconsistent. Why the shift of emphasis?
The answer, it seems, cuts to the heart of our analysis. Noah and Isaac both possess the potential to engage in tikkun olam; both are called upon to heal a fractured world. But the approaches they take as they embark upon this mission could not be more different. Noah wants to do it all himself, which is why he turns inward and invests all of his energies in the here-and-now. Isaac harbors no such desires. The patriarch understands that in order to leave an impact that endures, he must share his life’s work with others. Instead of beginning his own project, he continues his father’s; instead of rushing to complete it, he tackles the portion that he can handle and bequeaths the remainder unto his son. Unlike Noah’s story, then, Isaac’s story is not the story of one man. It is a story that spans generations.
“Alone we can do so little,” Helen Keller once reflected—“but together we can do so much.” In an age when influence is measured by “likes,” “shares,” and “re-tweets,” the distinction between Noah and Isaac reminds us that our words and deeds do not need to “go viral” in order for us to create a legacy of lasting significance. The small acts of kindness, of service and of advocacy that we engage in are meaningful even if they do not “spread across the globe,” as Noah’s descendants did. Indeed, Isaac teaches us, the world is bettered not one country, but one family at a time. If we can model joy, modesty, commitment and selflessness in our private lives, and faithfully transmit these values unto posterity, then we have already become a part of something larger than ourselves. By building strong, nurturing relationships and placing God at their center—that, in the words of Tennessee Williams, is how we claim our “little piece of eternity.”