A Universal Story of a Universal Man
This week, we read the story of Noah and the flood. “And these are the descendants of Noah, Noah was a righteous man, innocent he was in his generations.” (Genesis 6:9) Many commentators have questioned the use of the word generations – why the plural and why the addition of the word at all? If Noah was a righteous man and he was innocent, what does it matter which generation he was in?
Noah lived a very long life – 950 years, of which 600 years were before the flood and 350 years afterwards. Indeed, his life spanned many generations, not just quantitatively by qualitatively. In fact, he lived until after Abraham was born.
Our sages noted this life span and the fact that the next major hero mentioned in the Bible is Abraham, in order to compare Noah to Abraham. Rashi, the classic Biblical commentator who lived some 1,000 years ago, quote the early Midrashic debate as to the extent of Noah’s righteousness. One opinion considers Noah a truly righteous man. This theory explains that since Noah managed to be a righteous man throughout a period in time in which he was surrounded by evil people doing the most horrible of sins, he would certainly have been an even more righteous man had he lived surrounded by goodness and righteousness.
The other theory explains that Noah was only relatively righteous – relative to his own generation. Had he lived in Abraham’s time, compared to Abraham, he would have been considered mediocre. But compared to the folks that made up his neighborhood, he was a good guy.
I find both of these arguments fascinating. The first argument assumes that people have it easier doing the right thing when they are surrounded by others who aspire to righteousness. The importance of your environment and the influence your friends and neighbors have on you is significant. It also assumes that it takes extraordinary strength of character to rise above a negative environment. And it is this strength of character that determines the ability of a person to be righteous – for if Noah used that same strength of character in an easier environment, he would have been a saint!
The second argument sees Noah as uninfluenced by his neighbors but as someone who follows his own consciousness regardless of where he is. He is, indeed a good man, but not a man who takes unusual initiatives. He remains consistent in his deeds and would not be influenced by his neighbors, whether for the good or for the bad. Noah was not Abraham, for Abraham immediately beseeched G-d to save the people of Sodom and Gemorrah and Noah did nothing to try and save the people of his time. He lived in his own world, did the right thing, but did not go the extra mile.
May we all have the strength to withstand the negative influences that surround us and to take initiatives to make our world a better place, even when things are going relatively well.
Shabbat Shalom From Samaria,
Director, Israel Office
Here is a more in-depth teaching on the Torah Portion Noach