Rabbi Shlomo Sobol
Former Rosh Kollel in Detroit (2002-2005)
“Noah was a righteous man, perfect in his generation . . ..” Rashi’s comments on this pasuk are wellknown: “There are those among our rabbis who explain this word as praise, i.e., if he had been in a generation of righteous people he would have been even more righteous. And there are those who explain it in a negative manner, i.e., for his generation he was righteous, but if he had been in the generation of Avraham he would not have been considered anything.”
Rashi’s comments derive from Midrash Rabbah, where Rabbi Yehudah and Rabbi Nechemiah were arguing. In Rabbi Nechemiah’s view, the Torah is emphasizing that Noah was a righteous man “in his generation,” that is to say that even though Noah lived in a generation of wicked people, he was still able to maintain his righteousness. Kal vachomer, if he had lived in a generation of righteous people, he would have been even more righteous. But according to Rabbi Yehudah’s opinion, the Torah is emphasizing that Noah was a righteous man “in his generation” in order to stress that it was only relative to his generation that he was considered righteous. If he had lived in a generation of righteous people, he would not have been deemed one.
A question is thus raised. The p’shat of the pasuk is that the Torah wants to praise Noah for being righteous. If so, why does Rabbi Yehudah interpret Noah so negatively? Why take Noah’s personality, presented in the Torah as a positive and righteous, and interpret it so disparagingly? If this is what the rabbis do, what about the directive to judge every person according to his own merit? Kal vachomer, should we not give proper credit to one whom the Torah credits with being a “perfect, righteous man?”
There are two types of righteous people: a “far” righteous individual and a “fiery” one. A far righteous person is someone who, for example, is with his friends on a cold, wintery day but uses his coat to keep just himself warm. That’s fine for the “far” fellow, but everyone else is still cold. In that same situation, the fiery righteous person lights a furnace to warm the entire room so that everyone will be warm.
There are two types of righteous people in a spiritual sense, too. On the one hand, there is the righteous person who worries only about his own spiritual world. He learns Torah and fulfills mitzvot beautifully, but he does not concern himself with the spirituality of the people around him. This type of righteous person is comparable to the far one who warms himself in his own coat while the others around him are still freezing.
On the other hand, there are righteous people who worry not only about their own private world but they also care about K’lal Yisrael. This type of righteous person tries to illuminate the souls of all Jews and to bring them closer to Torah and mitzvot. This is the true type of tzaddik – righteous person – comparable to the one who warms the entire room so that everyone will be warm.
Rabbi Yehudah, who interprets Noah disparagingly, does so because in his opinion Noah should not simply have contented himself to build an ark and save himself. He should also have tried to get his generation to do teshuvah. A true tzaddik is a fiery righteous person who warms everyone around him and helps them better themselves. Rabbi Yehudah says that “if [Noah] had been in the generation of Avraham he would not have been considered anything.” Compared to Avraham, Noah would not have been considered a tzaddik. Avraham Avinu spent all of his life spreading the name of Hashem in the world and trying to bring people under the wings of the shechinah, and that is true righteousness.
A true tzaddik knows that until the name of Hashem is carried to every corner of the world, tikkun olam will never be completed. May it come to pass that we merit to be fiery tzaddikim, full of Torah and mitzvot, and thus able to influence others.