“I have set My bow in the clouds, and it shall serve as a
sign of the covenant between Me and the earth” (Genesis 9:13)
Parashat Noach represents the end of the “pre-history” section of the Torah. The first eleven chapters of Genesis tell universal stories of creation, as God repeatedly forms partnerships with humans that fail. Noah is God’s last attempt at universality. Starting next week, God adopts a new tactic: working through one particular people instead.
The Torah describes Noah as,”…a righteous man, blameless in his age.” (Gen. 6:9) Two rabbis in the Talmud debate whether or not this is a compliment. Rabbi Yochanan says it means Noah was righteous only when compared to people in his age (remember, God chose to destroy Noah’s world because of its wickedness); in another era he would not be considered righteous. Resh Lakish argues if Noah could be righteous in a wicked age, imagine how much more he would be in better times. (Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 108a)
The rabbis’ argument anticipates the nature versus nurture debate of modern times. Rabbi Yochanan feels Noah is who he is, period. Resh Lakish feels Noah would have been different, given a more wholesome environment with better role models. Interestingly, Rashi (an acronym for Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, the pre-eminent 11th century Jewish commentator) claims that if Noah lived in Abraham’s generation (a positive role model, for sure) he’d be a nobody. That may be more a comment on Abraham’s righteousness than Noah’s.
Nowadays we know it is the interaction of genetics with the environment that contributes to a person’s identity. The outcome is never predictable, though, and people growing up together develop radically different personalities. That’s what makes us unique: we each create our identities out of the lifetime of experiences we have.