Rabbi Leff wrote this D’var Torah for, and it was first published by Rabbis for Human Rights – Israel .
“Noah was a righteous and just man in his generation, God walked with Noah.” …Genesis 6:9
There is a very famous Rashi on the opening verse in this week’s Torah portion. The Torah tells us that Noah was a righteous and just man “b’dorotav,” in his generation. Rashi focuses on “in his generation,” and explains there are those who read the phrase to Noah’s credit, and those who read it to Noah’s disgrace. On the one hand, “if Noah could be righteous in such a terrible time, just think of how much more righteous he would have been if he lived in better times.” On the other side, “Noah is only righteous because everyone in his day was a terrible sinner. Compared to Abraham, Noah’s not so righteous.”
Those who would say Noah wasn’t so special can point to a midrash in Bereshit Rabbah (32:6) which says “Noah lacked faith; had the water not reached his ankles, he would not have entered the ark.”
Noah had confidence in himself and in his abilities. God told him to build an enormous ark, and he goes out and figures out how to get the job done. But he was a little lacking in his faith in God. He needed a push to get into the ark. He didn’t believe God meant what She said.
So if Noah was somewhat lacking in the faith department, we can assume that the people of his generation, the people who were destroyed in the flood, had even less faith in God. “Al achat kama v’kama,” all the more so, they must have been lacking in faith.
As strange as it may sound, R. Yosef Horowitz, a 19th century Mussar master, says the exact opposite in Madregat HaAdam. R. Horowitz says the problem of the people of Noah’s generation, the wicked sinners for whose sake the world was destroyed, was that they had TOO MUCH faith in God. And not enough in themselves.
They thought that EVERYTHING is in the hands of God. So in that sense, their faith in God was more complete than Noah’s. Noah doubted what God said. Noah wasn’t sure if God was really going to do what He had said. The rest of the generation, had no doubt about what God was going to do – but they were instead paralyzed because they felt it didn’t make any difference what they themselves were going to do. In their minds, EVERYTHING was up to God. No point arguing or changing.
What they were lacking in was faith in themselves: in the belief that there was something THEY could do. Most especially, they were lacking in the essential human choice Rambam teaches us in his laws of teshuva: everyone can be as righteous as Moses or as wicked as Yerovam—we each have the power to choose to be righteous or to choose to be wicked.
Noah and the sinners of his generation are the opposites of each other; Noah had faith in himself, but was lacking faith in God. The sinners of the generation had faith in God, but were lacking faith in themselves.
But Noah’s “sin” of lack of faith in God – the sin that he needed a little push to get into the ark – is not the reason that Noah is not compared favorably to Abraham. Faith is personal matter, and while it may be what leads a person to a life of righteousness, it is not the proof of the righteousness. Noah’s righteousness, at least from the story we read in the Torah was limited. Everyone else around him was a sinner. Noah wasn’t.
The Hippocratic oath charges doctors “do no harm.” The same would apply to righteous people. “Do no harm” – don’t hurt other people. Noah was a righteous person in the sense that he didn’t harm anyone. He didn’t steal, he didn’t kill, he didn’t lie.
But it’s not enough to simply do no harm. The physician needs to heal. The righteous person needs to help others.
And this is where Abraham far outshines Noah. When God told Noah he was going to destroy the world with a flood, build ark, Noah in essence responds “how big, Lord?” And to his credit he fulfills God’s commandment to build the ark, without worrying about what the neighbors might think about this crazy boat he’s building in his back yard.
But Abraham – when God told Abraham, “I’m going to let you in on a secret. Sodom and Gomorrah are filled with wicked people – I’m going to destroy the place.” Abraham responds with probably the most chutzpadik response in the Tanakh: “Will you also destroy the righteous with the wicked? Perhaps there are only fifty righteous inside the city; will you also destroy and not spare the place for the fifty righteous who are in it?” And Abraham bargains with God. He gets God to agree the place would be saved if even ten righteous people can be found there.
THAT’S a truly righteous person. Someone concerned not only with his own skin – or with the lives of his extended family – but someone concerned with the lives – the human rights – of total strangers. Not only total strangers, but people with a different religion and a different culture. Abraham had nothing in common with the people of Sodom, other than their common humanity as descendants of Adam.
Why was Abraham able to be so righteous? He had the balance that was missing in the generation of Noah. He had enough faith in God to be sure that God was just, that God would not kill innocents. That faith in the nature of God was so deep, it endured even when God said something that caused him to have doubts. AND he had faith in himself. He had enough faith in himself that he was willing to argue with anyone – even God Himself – to protect other people.
And that is the challenge laid down in working for human rights. We need to be righteous like Abraham, not like Noah. It’s not enough to say “I don’t hurt other people, I don’t violate other people’s rights.” We have to be like Abraham and speak up for, and work on behalf of, those whose rights are being abused. We have to have total faith that God is just, and we have to have the faith in ourselves to stand up to anyone, any government, even God, when we see injustice.
Noah was righteous in his generation – which wasn’t such a righteous generation. Part of our mission is to raise the bar on what it means to be righteous in OUR generation. It’s not good enough to be “better than Syria.”