Noach – What is Righteousness

This Dvar Torah is dedicated in memory of Dr. Bill Ladner, who was the inspiration and reason of why I started Food for Thought. He passed away in his 90s last Thursday night. May this dvar Torah and all subsequent Food for thoughts be a merit to his Holy Neshama, Yehi Zichro Baruch.

This Dvar Torah is based on a shmuz I heard in Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim Yerushalayim by Rav Moshe Chait zt”l in 2001. 

There are different ideas what a tzadik, a righteous person, is.

 This week’s Torah portion of Noach begins by saying: “These are the generations of Noach, Noach was a righteous man he was perfect in his generations; Noach walked with God” (Brieshis 6:9). Rashi there observes, “בדורותיו IN HIS GENERATIONS — Some of our Rabbis explain it (this word) to his credit: he was righteous even in his generation; it follows that had he lived in a generation of righteous people he would have been even more righteous owing to the force of good example. Others, however, explain it to his discredit: in comparison with his own generation he was accounted righteous, but had he lived in the generation of Avraham he would have been accounted as of no importance (cf. Sanhedrin 108a).”

Rashi states the argument that “In his generation” means a praise that he was righteous in his generation and all the more so, he would have been an even greater tzadik if he was in a generation among other righteous people, since being righteous among a generation of wicked people takes a lot of inner strength. However “In his generation” could also be an insult; for it can mean that while he may have been a tzadik in his generation, if he had lived at the same time as Avraham Avinu then he wouldn’t be considered anything special. He was righteous compared to the wicked; but compared to others he was nothing important.

Either way he is still called a tzadik. He has some level of righteousness which sets him apart.

There is a medrish Yalkut Shimone in parshas Vezos Habracha that elaborates on a pasuk from Eishes Chayil, “Many women have acquired wealth, but you surpass them all” (Mishlei 31:29). Chazal say about this pasuk that there are many righteous people in this world, but you are better then all of them, which allegorically refers to Moshe Rabbeinu. Adam HaRishon said to Moshe, “I am greater than you because I was created in the Image of Hashem, b’tzelem Elokim. Moshe said back that your greatness did not last too long. You could not even stay in that lofty state overnight, but for me the glory that was given to me from Hashem lasted for the rest of my life as the pasuk says, “Moses was one hundred and twenty years old when he died. His eyes had not dimmed, nor had he lost his [natural] freshness” (Devarim 34:7). Moshe admitted that being a tzelem Elokim, having been created by Hashem Himself without physical parents, is a very high level, but what counts is lasting at a spiritually high level.

The medrish continues with Noach approaching Moshe and saying that he is greater than Moshe because he was the only one saved with his family. Since he was able to withstand all the wickedness and stay righteous, he was greater than Moshe. Moshe replied that Noach didn’t have the power to save his generation, but Moshe was able to change the evil decree cast on the Jews by Hashem, caused by the sin of the golden calf. (Click here for Hebrew text.)
There is a state of righteousness that doesn’t show greatness (like Noach). But changing the decision Hashem makes is greatness (like Moshe). It wasn’t enough that Moshe led them through the desert but Moshe rose to a level of righteousness that could even change Hashem’s decision!

Chazal say that Noach’s generation was so evil that Hashem said they don’t have a right to live and yet Noach didn’t let them influence himself and his family. However this wasn’t enough to fulfill his purpose in life, for Moshe was saying he could have gone farther in righteousness by affecting others for the good just as Moshe did.

It is not enough to become a Tzadik for yourself. Gadlus ha’adam, the greatness of man, is to recognize how much Hashem endowed man. One is not here for oneself; rather one is here, in this world, in order to make a change in the world around him or her.

At one-point Moshe said he’d rather be non-existent than harm a fellow Jew. This is selflessness.

The Rambam says that everyone is affected by external influences. It is just a question of what we do with these influences.
What is the essence of a leader, a gadol? He is concerned for others. It is very important for everyone to think about what I am doing for others, and how am I influential?

It is not enough to be a “righteous man in his generation;” Moshe was the person to emulate because he had an impact on others. We must be conscientious about what we do in and around the beis medrish, our workplace, our shul, in our home etc.