This week we will be reading from parashat Noah. Unlike Abraham and Moses, the Torah tells us exactly why God selected Noah, “Noah was a righteous man; in his generation, he was above reproach; Noah walked with God” (Gen. 6:9). However, there is debate over the concept of ish Tzadik tamim haya b’dorotzv, ‘a righteous man; in his generation.’
According to rabbinic tradition, there are two classic ways to interpret this statement, ‘in his generation.’ One group of sages argues that Noah was considered righteous because he was simply the least corrupt of everything going on at the time, arguing that he would not have been considered righteous at any other time. However, there is a second group of sages who argues that Noah was a person of status and an exemplar for all generations of righteousness.
In either case, the rabbis do note how difficult it is to be a righteous person when there is little righteousness to be found. As the Torah goes on to say, “the earth became corrupt before God; the earth was filled with violence (hamas)” (Gen. 6:11).
This then creates a larger debate over the very concept of righteousness. According to the Zohar, Noah was righteous enough to save his family and all creatures from the flood, but he never reached out to anyone else to try to save them. The argument being that it is not enough to simply be righteous, but to also use it to help make the world, and especially humanity, better.
This, the rabbis argue, is the difference between Noah and Abraham. Noah, simply accepted God’s decree. Whereas Abraham argued with God over the fate of Sodom and Gemorrah.
It is most likely that Noah did the best that he could, and he resigned himself to the fate humanity was destined to suffer. However, as we are descended not only from Noah, but also from Abraham, our tradition expects more of us.
This is in part why we will continue to not only model, but also fight to save humanity, even if humanity needs to be saved from itself. For the waters are rising, and there is no better time to get started than now.
Rabbi Benjamin A. Sharff