IT'S ALL RELATIVE
Rabbi David Walk
There's a very famous story about Reb Zusha of Anapoli (1718-1800). He was one of the most beloved Chasidic leaders of the third generation of the movement, and the brother of Reb Elimelech of Lizhensk. Anyway, the story is told of Zusha, who lay on his deathbed surrounded by all his closest followers, and the great rebbe was crying bitterly. His students asked him, 'Rebbe, why are you so sad? After all the mitzvahs and good deeds you have done, you will surely get a great reward in heaven!' 'I'm afraid!' said Zusha. 'Because when I get to heaven, I know God's not going to ask me 'Why weren't you more like Moses?' or 'Why weren't you more like King David?' But I'm afraid that God will ask 'Zusha, why weren't you more like Zusha?' And then what will I say?!' The message is very powerful. We must endeavor to be all that we can be (whether we join the Army or not). But we must never think that we are to be compared to others. We are all judged according to our own scale. Even more to the point is the Braita in Tractate Rosh Hashanah: The names of the seventy elders appointed by Moshe are not mentioned in the Torah (Numbers chapter 11) so as to prevent people from saying, 'Are our judges as good as Moshe and all the rest of his court?!' (25a). In other words, every generation must look at their leaders and view them as their equivalent to Moshe and all the previous Torah giants. It's unfair to demand later generations to be on the same level as the earlier times.
All of that is very reasonable. However, at the beginning of this week's Torah reading we have a very different point of view. Our parsha begins with the following words: These are the generations of Noach, Noach was a righteous man, he was perfect in his generations; Noach walked with God (Genesis 6:9). Seems very flattering for this Noach fellow, but Rashi comments: Some of our Sages interpret 'in his generations' favorably: How much more so if he had lived in a generation of righteous people, he would have been even more righteous. Others interpret it derogatorily: In comparison with his generation he was righteous, but if he had been in Abraham's generation, he would not have been considered of any importance. Doesn't that comment (taken from Sanhedrin 108a) by the dean of all commentaries conflict with all the ideas I just quoted? Why does Rashi change the game when it comes to Noach? Before we go any further, I must admit a certain bias against Noach. We go into our assessment of Noach with a strike against him. He must have had a defect because he wasn't chosen to father the covenantal people. This honor was reserved for Avraham. So, much of the traditional analysis will be based on an unfavorable comparison to our beloved Patriarch.
This comparison begins immediately, because in explaining the second part of the verse, 'Noach walked with God', Rashi elaborates on this comparison between Noach and Abraham: 'Noach required God's assistance for support, but Abraham fortified himself, maintaining his righteousness by himself.' Later, God tells Avraham to 'walk before Me (17:1).' It took an Avraham to walk ahead without God's aid. The comparison between Noach and Abraham is a natural one. Both Noach and Abraham merited a special relationship with God after lists of ten unremarkable generations. Rav Yehudah Amital, the late Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etziyon makes the following perceptive observation: Yet, if we analyze their lives - especially as recorded by the midrash and the Zohar - we uncover stark differences. We can isolate two main differences. 1) Noach was a product of his generation. He grew up in the same environment as his neighbors. Abraham, on the other hand, simply arrived in Cana'an, a stranger. 2) At the same time, Noach and Abraham developed the opposite relationship with their neighbors. While Noach isolated himself from the masses, Abraham sought them out, proclaiming the message of God.
There's a certain irony in Rav Amital's observation. You'd think that a local, like Noach, would have more to do with the neighbors than a recent immigrant, like Avraham. But it was Avraham who related to them, rather than Noach. And, perhaps, the beginning of the much sought solution to our conundrum can be found when looking in that direction. Noach was a wonderful person. He was truly righteous in the sense that he resisted the example being set by his neighbors and refrained from all of their negative and violent behavior. That's genuinely admirable. But he was found wanting in two critical areas. He neither tried to have a positive effect on his contemporaries nor prayed on their behalf. The Zohar explains why. Noach was afraid that if he prayed for his generation, he himself would not be spared. He believed, correctly, that to pray for someone, you have to understand them; you have to identify with their struggles. Noach was afraid his prayer would draw him closer to his generation. Perhaps he would then be influenced by them.
Avraham, on the other hand, made every effort to save these strange people all around him. The fact that he failed to save Sodom and its suburbs isn't important. What's important is that he tried. And the Torah records (Breishit 12:5) that Avraham did have positive influence on many others in his time.
Noach should have believed in himself that he had the potential to save his generation, for he spoke their language. He was one of them. However, instead of reaching out, he simply gave up on them. Rabbi Amital concludes: The test of a tzaddik is not only within his own generation, in the realm of relations between him and the people around him. The question that must guide him is whether he is using all the potential that he possesses.
Now we have an answer to our original question. It isn't that Noach wasn't as great as Avraham. Noach doesn't measure up, because he wasn't the best Noach he could have been. Are we the best we can be?