Was Noah someone who would have been recognized as a tzadik in any generation? Or was Noah only a tzadik in a relative sense, only in comparison to those around him?
One midrashic teaching, taking the latter route, compares God's selection of Noah to the story of a lone traveler finding another lone soul on the road, and engaging him in discussion simply because there was no on else to talk to. As Dr. Aviva Zornberg summarized this midrash: "God chooses Noah not because he has achieved significant wisdom or virtue, but because he seeks to convey to someone the knowledge of Himself."
Walking all by himself on a path that everyone else in the world had abandoned, Noah became the object of God's attention. The midrash isn't, I don't think, being harsh or unfair to Noah. It is just sharing, in candid terms, its read of a Biblical character who is an essentially decent person, but who also possesses some very deep personality flaws.
How might we describe Noah's most basic personality flaw? Zornberg calls it the flaw of being incurious.
To understand what being "incurious" means, we need only recall that within his biblical story, we never find Noah -- not even once -- expressing curiosity about why his corrupt neighbors live the terrible way that they do. The Torah doesn't record one interaction between him and any other human being prior to their all being wiped out in the flood. The rabbis of the midrash presume that some sort of conversation between Noah and his neighbors must invariably have ensued once the ark started going up in his front yard, but in projecting what those conversations may have sounded like, they suggest dialogues consistently characterized by Noah's lack of curiosity about his fellows.
In one rabbinic passage (Tanchuma 5), the neighbors give Noah the perfect opening for a substantive discussion. "What are all these cedar trees for?" the neighbors ask. This was Noah's moment to talk about his understanding of Divine expectations of human behavior, and to ask them why they were behaving in ways so displeasing to God. But instead, he simply responds, "God is bringing a flood to the world and told me to build an ark so that my family and I can escape." Their question to him opens a door, but in his lack of curiosity about them, all Noah comes forward with is a superficial response that dead-ends the conversation.
In a similar text (Sanhedrin 108b), Noah is actually portrayed as rebuking his contemporaries, but his words are described as being "as tough as lightning bolts," and they wind up eliciting only derision and scorn, and not any self-reflection. This was a generation that lacked any insight into itself, a generation that desperately needed someone to sketch out for them the contours of a moral framework within which to evaluate themselves. But Noah had no interest in really talking with them. He was not curious about what made them tick.
The Zohar provides the most dramatic criticism of all of Noah's incuriosity: When Noah exited the ark and saw that the world had been destroyed, he began to cry before God and he said," Master of the universe! You are called 'the Compassionate One.' You ought to have had compassion upon Your creations!"
God responded to him, "Stupid shepherd. Now you say this?! Why did you not say this at the time [that I told you to build the ark]?... Now you open your mouth to speak before Me?!"
Had only Noah been curious about the people around him when they were yet alive, the sequence of events might have played out quite differently.
What's most fascinating about this critique of Noah is that there is something rather counter-cultural about it. One of the values that our environment ingrains in us is that curiosity about others is bad. We are taught that we should rein in our curiosity about others, lest we become nosy and start asking people personal questions that are none of our business -- questions that might even prove embarrassing to them. Just say hello to people, smile, and be sure to only ask "how are you?" when it's clear that no substantial response is expected. Curiosity is just plain impolite.
And yet, curiosity is the fountainhead of human mutual assistance. If I suspend my curiosity, I will never ask what's going on with you. And if I never ask, you will never tell me. And if you never tell me, I will never understand. And if I do not understand, I can never be of any help to you. There are also times when we must ask, when through our failure to ask we effectively consign people around us to a fate comparable to the fate of Noah's generation. To be sure, we need to develop enough honesty with ourselves to be able to distinguish between being "desiring-to-be-helpful" curious and "just-plain-nosy" curious. That's another piece of our internal work. But if we don't do the work and hone our skills, people will get washed away right from under our noses.
Noah was righteous in his generation. But not sufficiently curious to actually save any of them.
Yosef Kanefsky is senior rabbi at B'nai-David Judea (www.bnaidavid.com), a Modern Orthodox congregation in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood