Righteous in his Generation

מרן הגאב"ד שליט"א
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The Torah describes Noach as an איש צדיק ותמים בדורותיו, “A righteous man, perfect in his generation.”  Rashi cites two explanations of the emphasis “in his generation”:

יש מרבותינו דורשים אותו לשבח, כל שכן שאלו היה בדור צדיקים היה צדיק יותר, ויש שדורשים אותו לגנאי, לפי דורו היה צדיק, ואלו היה בדורו של אברהם לא היה נחשב לכלום:

Some explain this to his credit.  Had he been in a righteous generation, he would have been all the more righteous.  Others explain this to his disgrace.  Relative to the wicked standards of his generation, he could be considered righteous.  However, in the generation of Avraham, he would have been worthless in comparison.[1]

Why did the second opinion interpret the expression “in his generation” to Noach’s disgrace?  The Torah itself testifies that “Noach found favor in Hashem’s eyes,” implying that he was indeed a tzaddik, in whose merit life on earth endured.  Would it not then be more reasonable to judge him favorably, and presume that in a righteous generation, Noach would have risen to even greater heights?

Furthermore, why does the first opinion compare Noach to a generation of “tzaddikim” in a general sense, whereas the second opinion compares him specifically to Avraham?  What was unique about Avraham Avinu, that made Noach pale in comparison?

Yeshaya HaNavi called the great Flood “the Waters of Noach,”[2] (as we read in this week’s haftorah) implying that Noach was in some way responsible for them.  The Zohar in fact says so explicitly:

דכיון דאמר ליה קודשא בריך הוא דישזיב ליה בתיבותא דכתיב "ואני הנני מביא את המבול מים וגו'", וכתיב "ומחיתי את כל היקום אשר עשיתי מעל פני האדמה ואני הנני מקים את בריתי וגו' ובאת אל התיבה" כיון דאמר ליה דישתזיב הוא ובנוי לא בעא רחמין על עלמא ואתאבידו ובגין כך אקרון מי המבול על שמיה כמה דאת אמר "כי מי נח זאת לי אשר נשבעתי מעבור מי נח."

Hashem told Noach that He would protect him in the ark, as it is written, “Behold, I shall bring a deluge of water …” and “I shall wipe from the face of the earth all the creatures I have made, but I shall observe My covenant … and you shall enter the ark.”  When Hashem told Noach that he and his sons would survive, he failed to pray on behalf of the world, and everything was destroyed as a result.  For this reasons, the floodwaters were called by his name, as it is written, “For they are the Waters of Noach before Me, and I have sworn never again to bring the Waters of Noach.”[3]

Although Noach was perfectly righteous in his own affairs, he was called to account for failing to pray on behalf of the sinners of his generation, that they might be forgiven and rescued from destruction.  Those who explain the expression “righteous in his generation” to demonstrate Noach’s sole fault, compare him to Avraham, who prayed on behalf of the wicked sinners of Sodom, that they might be saved despite their many iniquities.  The Zohar states as follows:

אמר רבי יוחנן בא וראה מה בין צדיקים שהיו להם לישראל אחר נח ובין נח, נח לא הגין על דורו ולא התפלל עליהם כאברהם דכיון דאמר קודשא בריך הוא לאברהם "זעקת סדום ועמורה כי רבה" מיד "ויגש אברהם ויאמר וגו'" והרבה תחנונים לפני הקודש ברוך הוא עד ששאל שאם ימצא עשרה צדיקים שיכפר לכל המקום בעבורם וחשב אברהם שהיו בעיר עם לוט ואשתו ובנותיו עשרה צדיקים ולפיכך לא התפלל.

Rebbe Yochanan said: Come and see the difference between Noach and the tzaddikim that arose in Israel after him.  Noach did not protect his generation, nor pray on their behalf as did Avraham.  When Hashem informed Avraham that He intended to destroy Sodom, Avraham immediately approached Him in prayer.  He continued to beseech Him, until Hashem agreed that if only ten righteous people were to be found in Sodom, He would spare the entire city on their behalf.  Avraham assumed that including Lot and his family, Hashem would certainly find ten.  Therefore he concluded his prayers.  Had he realized that there were not even ten, he would have prayed that Sodom be spared in the merit of even fewer.[4]

Someone who kills another person accidentally is exiled to a refuge city (ir miklat), where he must remain until the Kohen Gadol dies.  The Kohen Gadol’s mother would often send food packages to the exiles, to prevent them from praying for the death of her son.  Although the Torah assures us that “As a bird that hovers free, an unwarranted curse will not arrive,”[5] the prayers of the exiles were not considered “unwarranted curses,” since the Kohen Gadol was responsible for their predicament.  Had he prayed sufficiently for peace, the tragedies would never have occurred, and they would never have been forced into exile.[6]

From all these sources we draw an important conclusion.  Torah leaders are responsible for the physical and spiritual welfare of their entire generation, even for the sinners among us.  They must pray on our behalf, even when we prove unworthy.  Noach’s failure to do so left a blemish on his reputation, despite his perfect righteousness in all other matters.

 

The Liar’s Folly

 

The Gemara discusses certain instances in which a person is technically able to renege on a business commitment.  However, Beis Din extends to him the severe curse that, “He Who punished the Generation of the Flood and the Generation of the Dispersion (who built the Tower of Bavel) will punish those who break their word.”[7]

Throughout history, countless nations have met their demise at the hand of Heavenly retribution for their sins.  Why were the Generations of the Flood and the Dispersion chosen as the examples with which to warn dishonest businessmen?  Why was any example necessary?  Would it not have been enough to simply say, “He Who punishes sinners will punish you”?  By focusing on these two generations in particular, it seems that there must be some relation between their sins, and the baleful sin of cheating in business.

The Generation of the Flood were faulted primarily for the rampant theft that plagued their era.  The Gemara states:

 

אמר רבי יוחנן בא וראה כמה גדול כחה של חמס שהרי דור המבול עברו על הכל ולא נחתם עליהם גזר דינם עד שפשטו ידיהם בגזל שנאמר  "כי מלאה הארץ חמס מפניהם והנני משחיתם את הארץ."

 

 

R’ Yochanan taught: Come and see the terrible result of thievery.  The Generation of the Flood transgressed all Hashem’s commands, yet their judgment was not sealed until they stretched their hands out in theft, as it is written, “For the land is filled with thievery; therefore, I shall destroy them from the earth. [8][9]

 

In contrast, the Generation of the Dispersion was united by a bond of common purpose.  There was no theft, dissent, or strife among them, as they combined their efforts towards a common goal of evil, to ascend the Heavens and wage war against the Creator Himself.[10]  There sin was not bein adam l’chaveiro (between man and his fellow), but bein adam l’Makom (between man and his Creator).

The deceitful businessman sins not only against his victim, but against Hashem, and against himself too.  He invites his own ruin in this world and the next, by blocking the channels of Hashem’s blessing.  He shakes the very foundations of society, since truth is the first and foremost pillar of existence, as our Sages teach, “The world stands on three pillars: truth, justice and peace.”[11]  A person who cheats in business cannot hope to have any relationship with Hashem, Who signs His Name with a seal of Truth. [12]

For this reason, our Sages warn the deceitful businessman that “He Who punished the Generation of the Flood and the Generation of the Dispersion will punish all those who do not keep their word.”  His sin is doubly heinous, since it offends both his G‑d and his fellow man.  Therefore, he is destined to receive a twofold punishment, equivalent to the punishments of the Flood and the Dispersion.


Shunning Evil

 

In this week’s parsha, Noach is described once as “a righteous man, perfect in his generation,” while elsewhere Hashem describes him as “righteous in his generation,” without mentioning his perfection.  For which attribute was he lauded as righteous; for which was he lauded as perfect; and why was the second praise later omitted?

Noach lived in two corrupt eras: one before the Flood, and one after.  The generation before the Flood surrendered itself to the unbridled pursuit of physical pleasure, such that perversion became a normal way of life.[13]  The generation of the Dispersion, which thrived after the Flood, followed instead the path of  arrogance and heresy.  Blinded by their delusions of grandeur, they had the preposterous audacity to assault the very Heavens and confront G‑d Himself.[14]

We are all influenced by the deeds, words and ideologies of our peers, as the Rambam warns:

דרך ברייתו של אדם להיות נמשך בדעותיו ובמעשיו אחר ריעיו וחביריו נוהג כמנהג אנשי מדינתו, לפיכך צריך אדם להתחבר לצדיקים ולישב אצל החכמים תמיד כדי שילמוד ממעשיהם, ויתרחק מן הרשעים ההולכים בחשך כדי שלא ילמוד ממעשיהם, הוא ששלמה אומר "הולך את חכמים יחכם ורועה כסילים ירוע", ואומר "אשרי האיש וגו'", וכן אם היה במדינה שמנהגותיה רעים ואין אנשיה הולכים בדרך ישרה ילך למקום שאנשיה צדיקים ונוהגים בדרך טובים, ואם היו כל המדינות שהוא יודעם ושומע שמועתן נוהגים בדרך לא טובה כמו זמנינו, או שאינו יכול ללכת למדינה שמנהגותיה טובים מפני הגייסות או מפני החולי ישב לבדו יחידי כענין שנאמר "ישב בדד וידום", ואם היו רעים וחטאים שאין מניחים אותו לישב במדינה אלא אם כן נתערב עמהן ונוהג במנהגם הרע יצא למערות ולחוחים ולמדברות, ואל ינהיג עצמו בדרך חטאים כענין שנאמר "מי יתנני במדבר מלון אורחים."

Man’s nature is to be drawn after the opinions and deeds of his friends and peers.  He acts as his countrymen act.  Therefore, man must befriend the righteous, and always associate with the wise, so that he may emulate their ways.  He must distance himself from the wicked, and from those who walk in darkness, to avoid their influence.  As Shlomo said, “He who walks with the wise will become wise, while he who pastures with the foolish will be harmed,” and similarly, “Fortunate is the man [who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked].”

If he lives in a country whose ways are evil, and its people walk on crooked paths, he should move to a place of righteous people, who act properly.  If all the countries of which he knows, or has heard their reputation, all act improperly (as in our own time), or if he cannot travel to a country with proper customs because of war or disease, he should isolate himself, as is written, “Let him sit alone and be silent.”  If people are so wicked that they will not allow him to remain in their country unless he mingles with them and follows their evil ways, he should go out to live among the caves, brushland, and deserts, rather than learn to emulate the wicked, as is written, “Who would make the wilderness into my guest-hostel.”[15]

When perversion and arrogance covered the face of the earth, Noach alone remained true to his values.  The corruption of the world could not penetrate the stalwart barriers of faith he had built around his heart.  In the perverse Generation of the flood, Noach’s purity of heart and strength of character put him on par with Yosef HaTzaddik, who withstood the lascivious advances of Potiphar’s wife.  He too earned the title of “Tzaddik – righteous.”  Therefore, in reference to the particular sins of the Generation of the Flood, Hashem described him as “righteous in his generation.”  He was righteous in his self-control, in stark contrast to the wild abandon that destroyed his generation.

“Enter the ark together with your family, for you alone I have found to be righteous before Me,” Hashem told him.  Noach was the “Tzaddik yesod olam – the righteous man who is the foundation of the world.”[16]  In kabbalistic texts, the attribute of “Yesod - foundation” refers to the ability to contain one’s desires.  From Noach’s righteousness in this particular area, a new world was founded after the flood.  (In contrast, our Sages warn that anyone who allows himself to be drawn after selfish pleasure brings a deluge of destruction to the world, as cited in Shulchan Aruch.[17])

In the Generation of the Dispersion, Noach was exposed to a different, but equally destructive influence – that of heresy and arrogance.  When his neighbors gathered in unison to throw off the yoke of Hashem’s Kingdom, Noach alone remained perfectly faithful.

The Torah therefore introduces Noach as “a righteous man, perfect in his generation.”  He was righteous in standing against the hedonism of the Generation of the Flood, and perfect in standing against the arrogance and heresy of the Generation of the Dispersion.  However, when Hashem told Noach that He would save him from the Flood, He called Noach as “righteous,” making no mention of his perfection, since it was the trait of righteous self-control that saved him from the Flood.

Throughout our lives, we face many challenges to our ideals.  We find ourselves in situations where we must cling to our religious and moral values, despite an overwhelming tide of social influence to the contrary.  The main test of our character is not when things go easy, but when we must sacrifice for our beliefs.  When we block out the tumultuous, confusing din of social pressure, and focus on the still, small voice of Hashem that calls to us from our innermost hearts, we rise to the level of Noach, the “righteous man, perfect in his generation,” who built an ark of stalwart idealism which preserved the human race.


[1] Rashi, Bereishis 6:9

[2] Yeshaya 54:9

[3] Zohar, Bereishis 67b

[4] Zohar, I 254b

[5] Mishlei 26:2

[6] Makkos 11a

[7] Bava Metzia 44a

[8] Bereishis 6:13

[9] Sanhedrin 108a

[10] Bereishis Rabbah ch. 38, cited by Rashi

[11] Avos, end of chapter 1

[12] Shabbos 55a

[13] Rashi, Bereishis 6:11,12

[14] Rashi, Bereishis 11:1

[15] Rambam, Hilchos Deios ch. 6

[16] Mishlei, 10:25

[17] Shabbos 41a.  See Shulchan Aruch: Orach Chaim 3:14, Even HaEzer 23:4