Friday, October 19, 2012

Parshat Noach - פרשת נח

"אֵלֶּה תּוֹלְדֹת נֹחַ. נֹחַ אִישׁ צַדִּיק תָּמִים הָיָה בְּדֹרֹתָיו: אֶת-הָאֱלֹהִים, הִתְהַלֶּךְ-נֹחַ - These are the generations of Noach. Noach was in his generations a man righteous and whole-hearted; Noach walked with God."
(בראשית ו:ט)

In Zichron Meir, Rabbi Meir Robman writes that there is a problem with the way we perceive Noach. From the verse above, it would seem quite clear that Noach was a particularly holy man, but a number of the commentators on the Torah talk about Noach in a denigratory manner. Commenting on Masechet Sandhedrin in his notes on the Talmud, Rashi points out that "There are a number of our Rabbis who praise Noach... and there are those who denigrate him; "According to his generation he was deemed righteous, but had he lived during the time of Avraham, he wouldn't have been counted as anything."

This perception of Noach's relative merit is not normally challenged, but upon consider things, we may realise that this is a rather odd state of affairs. And it's even more puzzling given the Radak's view of Noach. The Radak explains that "Noach walked with Hashem, he was attached to Him, and all his deeds were in His name," before going on to highlight his great strength in "defeating his natural inclination, for he lived in a generation of wicked and evil people but didn't learn from their ways."

So we have two ways of regarding Noach - we can say that he was only deemed a righteous man because he lived amongst a very low, base people and only by comparison could he be deemed a good man. Or we can say that he was genuinely righteous because he managed to ignore them and stay on the "straight and narrow." These two perspectives are the polar opposite of one another. Either way, we need to resolve this issue - either Noach was righteous or he was not!

The answer to this problem is that the two opinions do not truly clash - both schools of thought agree that Noach was righteous man; what they argue about is the meaning of the word "בְּדֹרֹתָיו - his generations."

When saying that Noach didn't compare to the men of Avraham's generation, Reish Lakish's opinion in the gemara might seem derogatory of Noach, but he actually wasn't criticising Noach. His point was that it although it wasn't his fault, Noach lived amongst wicked people, and because Noach lived at that particular time, he was limited spiritually. Had he lived at another time though, Noach may well have been able to attain a significantly higher spiritual level. Either way, I think this insight is genuinely relevant to all of us - we can't choose the time we were born into; we all live in the present. Maybe we would have done better if we had been around in the times of the Bet Hamikdash of old, maybe we feel that we would have done better if we'd have been born in the future. Maybe we feel that we are surrounded by people who are low, base and evil. All this is out of our control. As it says in Pirkei Avot: במקום שאין" אנשים השתדל להיות איש - In a place where there are no men, try to be a man." We can't help the fact that the world is such a cruel, relentless place. It's too hard to change the entire world when the situation is as bad as it is. But if we all start by changing ourselves for the good, the world will be changed for the better. After all, at a time when the world warranted destruction, in Noach's merit alone did the human race continue.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom!

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