Friday, October 8, 2021/2 Heshvan, 5782
Parashat Noah Genesis 6:9-11:32
Noah is the only character in the Torah directly referred to as a tzaddik, a righteous man. The first verse of this week’s Torah portion says, “Noah was a righteous man; he was blameless in his generation.” (Genesis 6:9)
The sages explained that Noah lived at a time of social depravity and corruption. Unlike others of his generation, Noah was not violent and did not act immorally. (Ramban, Gen 6:9) When Noah began to build an ark, teaches Midrash Tanchuma Noach, the people teased him relentlessly. In turn, he tried to convince them to repent, to no avail, and continued his work. His dedication to God and preserving the species of the earth was truly commendable. Noah is deserving of the title “Tzadik,” righteous one because he alone acts with integrity and righteousness, even when surrounded by corruption, greed, violence. At the same time, Noah is far from perfect.
The 18th Century Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Berdichev asks how Noah can be called righteous when he did not do anything to prevent the Flood. He pleaded with people to change their ways but never once did it occur to him to ask or beg God to change God’s mind.
“There is a kind of tzaddik, a kind of righteous person,” explains Rabbi Levi Yitzchak, who serves God but is so lowly in their own eyes that they think to themselves, “Who am I to pray for God to reverse the bad decree?” and therefore they don’t pray. Now even though Noah was a great and blameless righteous person, he was very small in his own eyes and did not have faith that he was a powerful righteous person with the ability to annul the decree of the Flood.” When the flood is over, Noah witnesses the destruction that had been caused. Some sages say he later wonders if he could have done more to prevent it.
By contrast, next week, we will study the story of Abraham, who did not hesitate to stand up to God when he believed actions warranted it. When God told him of plans to destroy the corrupt cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham understood what God was talking about. The people of those cities did some appalling things. Despite that, Abraham thought about the consequences of destruction. He appealed to God’s compassion to save these cities on account of any righteous person who lived within them. Doing so wasn’t easy. Standing up to God takes chutzpah (guts). He didn’t know how God would respond. Abraham knew he might not be successful, but he felt compelled to put everything on the line to try anyway. After all, what is more important than standing up for the well-being of others?
The Talmud teaches, “In a place where no one behaves like a human being, you must strive to be human.” (Yevamot 63b) It takes a tzaddik to be righteous when no one else is. It takes a leader to look for the good in society and take a stand against injustice. Abraham merits becoming the father of the Jewish people because his primary value is one of compassion and care for his fellow human beings.
May we, like Noah, strive to be just and righteous, even when doing so is unpopular or nearly impossible. May we be like Abraham, lead with compassionate vision, and always strive to see the good in one another.
Rabbi Cassi Kail