Parshat Noach begins with the Torah showering (no pun intended) Noach with praise. The Torah calls him a righteous man, complete "in his generation" and that he walked with God. Well, all that certainly makes sense as God did choose him to be the lone survivor of the flood that wiped out mankind.
And yet, our Sages comment on the verse by saying that Noach was only great "in his generation" but compared to other Biblical superheroes like Avraham and Moshe, Noach
would not have looked all that great. They even go so far to call in to question the level of Noach's belief in God by saying he was "small in his belief of God, A believer and a non-believer".
Which has got to make you wonder... Why are our Sages taking such a negative spin towards Noach?
But as we contemplate the story of the flood, we come to realize that Noach missed out on an opportunity that could have drastically changes the history of humanity.
Noach, Avraham and Moshe are all faced at one point in their career with God making them privy to his intent to cause massive destruction. When Avraham is informed that Sodom is on the verge of destruction, he pleads and negotiates with God to save them in the merit of their righteous. When Moshe is informed of the pending destruction of the Jewish people after the sin of the Golden Calf, Moshe lets God know that if the Jewish people go down, he is going down with them.
But with Noach we don't find that hard nose negotiating scene or the "I'm going down with my ship" attitude.
The building of the Ark was a massive project that took Noach over a century to build. God expected that Noach would seize the opportunity to launch a major campaign to try to save the generation by praying for them and trying to persuade them to open their eyes to the declining morality and status of humankind. But he didn't.
A subtle but powerful allusion to this point is found in the very words that Moshe uses when defending the Jewish people. Moshe says "Macheini" which means "Erase me". The very same letters used in the word Macheini can also spell "Mei Noach", the waters of Noach. These are destructive waters that could have been avoided if instead Noach would have challenged God and said Macheini, I am one with mankind, if you want me, you need to spare them as well.
Why didn't Noach pray for his generation?
Perhaps this is what our Sages mean when the say that Noach was "a believer and a non-believer" and that in Avraham's generation Noach would not have been considered that great. Because, even though Noach certainly believed in the existence of God, he didn't believe in the spark of Godliness in the people around him. Avraham is known as a "man of kindness" not just because he was a really friendly guy who enjoyed having people over for dinner, but because he was able to see the Godly potential in the heart of every human being, no matter if they were sinners or how far they had fallen. That is where Noach fell short. He didn't believe that no matter how far the world drifted, it could still be saved.
Noach doubted the spark of God in humanity, and, in all likelihood, didn't even fully believe in the spark of Godliness in himself, otherwise he would have believed that in his merit the entire world could be saved.
The message of Parshat Noach is to never lose hope in the people around you, never lose hope in what your prayers can accomplish and never back down when the ball is in your court to make a difference for humanity.