Being a Tzadik

Noah By :  Matthew Berkowitz Former Director of Israel Programs, JTS Posted On Oct 27, 2006 / 5767

In his commentary on Parashat Noah, Rabbi Shmuel Avidor-HaCohen, z”l, raises an interesting question concerning the character of Noah and the quintessential prayer said at the heart of every service, the Amidah. Why is No·ah not counted amongst our forefathers? After all, we pray in the name of “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob”, why not include Noah in this long line of distinguished personages? (HaCohen, Likrat Shabbat, in Hebrew, 14). In shedding light on this difficulty, we turn to the opening of this week’s Torah reading which states, “these are the generations of Noah. Noah was a righteous, upright man in his generation; No·ah walked with God” (Genesis 6:9).

Two aspects with regard to this verse spark midrashic introspection. First, why does the text qualify that Noah was righteous “in his generation.” How are we to understand this seemingly superfluous phrase? While some rabbis endeavor to explain this qualifier to the benefit of Noah saying that if he were righteous in his generation of predominantly evil doers, all the more so would he be counted among the righteous in later generations, others profess a radically different reading. Given that people were so abominable and wicked in No·ah’s generation, Noah, comparatively speaking, was a righteous individual. So perhaps he showed an ounce of lovingkindness more than his fellow humans. He may have been considered righteous in his times, but had he lived later, he would have been considered an unexceptional individual. Second, the verse raises another interesting notion: namely, that No·ah walked with God. As is well evidenced by the building of the ark, God dictated the instructions word by word, detail by detail to Noah as he prepared himself for the flood. Noah consistently must take his cue from God; he is almost an automaton in how he behaves, seemingly incapable of being proactive or making a decision on his own. No·ah is silent; he follows and walks with God. However with regard to Abraham, Torah teaches that God declared, “walk before Me” (Genesis 17:1). That is to say, Abraham was capable of blazing his own path. Far from relying solely on God, he recognized with profound clarity that which is Godly, moral, and ethical in this world. And so our ancestor Abraham was able to light the way for God.

The Hasidim appropriately teach that “Noah was a righteous individual in a fur coat.” What do they mean? The lesson goes that there are righteous people that kindle fires in their homes to warm the entire home and share that warmth with their community; and then there are those who wrap themselves in a fur coat as others shiver from the cold. Sadly, Noah seems to fall into the latter category. He works slavishly and conscientiously to save himself and his family from impending doom. There is no hint in the Torah that No·ah acted in a prophetic manner — seeking to proclaim a message of repentance. At a minimum, one would expect this tzadik to make some attempt to save his fellow humans. Nothing is done except his silent act of building an ark — for himself and his family.

May each of us learn to be a true tzadik in our generation — lighting a path before God and always being conscious of not only our needs but also the needs of others.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz

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