The Power of the Tzadik

Noah By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Oct 16, 1996 / 5757 | Torah Commentary

Last month Columbia University Business School honored Aaron Feuerstein with its 1996 Botwinick Prize in Business Ethics. I attended the ceremony and was profoundly stirred.

Mr. Feuerstein is the owner of Malden Mills Industries, an international textile supplier and the largest employer in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Fame came his way unsolicited last December when, in the wake of a fire that destroyed three of four buildings in his plant, he vowed not only to rebuild but to keep a force of some 3000 displaced employees on his payroll for the next three months. Today, production is back to 85% of what it had been at the time of the fire.

In his remarks to students and faculty, Mr. Feuerstein, a spry and witty septuagenarian, spoke of his business philosophy. Shareholders are not more deserving than workers. On the contrary, treating your workers well is critical to eliciting their loyalty and ingenuity. The most advanced technology still needs a skilled and devoted work force to maximize its benefits. The increased productivity of highly motivated employees will translate into profits for shareholders soon enough.

A graduate of Yeshiva University, Mr. Feuerstein closed poignantly on a religious note. In business, he said, he merely carries out the dictates of his daily prayers. Each morning as he recites the opening line of the Shema (which he did on the spot), he affirms the singular unity of God: the God he worships in the synagogue is the same God who inhabits his home and who presides over his business. One God alone informs all that he does.

Without a doubt the Business School had chosen an exceptional honoree: a man of integrity in a compartmentalized world. No dichotomy separates what he believes from what he practices. The inner life, and not the bottom line, directs his public actions. When he finished I felt that I had witnessed an act of “kiddush ha-Shem”, a sanctification of God’s name.

The memory of that moment comes to mind in reference to the figure of No·ah, whom we revisit this Shabbat. As Professor Judah Goldin points out, he is the one human being in Scripture called zaddik… (Genesis 6:9). Neither Abraham, nor Moses, nor Elijah, nor any other biblical hero is so called in Scripture itself. Moreover, as if that were not enough, the Torah immediately adds a second adjective – tamim – to underscore just how special he was. In a world unredeemably wicked, No·ah stood out as a “righteous (zaddik)” and “blameless (tamim)” man.

Abraham Ibn Ezra, the Spanish exegete of the twelfth century, distinguishes between the two words. They are not to be taken as duplicative, but complementary. “Righteous” depicts No·ah’s deeds, while “blameless” speaks of the disposition of his heart. Together the adjectives suggest a wholly good man, whose outward deeds and inner sentiments remain in perfect concord. How often do we find ourselves doing the right thing for the wrong reason! Ibn Ezra’s enlightening distinction alludes to a lofty theory of morality which posits the worth of a deed not in terms of its effect but the motive from which it springs.

A thousand years before Ibn Ezra, Antigonus of Sokho had given that view its classical Jewish formulation: “Do not be like servants who serve their masters expecting to receive a reward; be rather like servants who serve their master unconditionally, with no thought of reward.”

Yet the rabbis were prepared to allow for a learning curve. The reduction if not the elimination of ulterior motives requires patient practice. The regular performance of a mitzva will eventually inculcate the appropriate state of mind. Though we begin the complicated choreography of Jewish ritual and morality self-consciously, as it becomes more natural to us, we are able to execute it more wholeheartedly.

Thus we can imagine No·ah during the first 600 years of his life unaffected by the decadence and degradation around him. He merited the accolades of “righteous” and “blameless” because his virtuous behavior was grounded in the habits of a pure heart. As yet unaddressed by God, he persisted in doing the good against great odds without thought of personal gain.

In commenting on the parasha, the midrash tells the story of a certain Rabbi Tanhuma in whose day Israel was struck by a severe famine. In response to the anguished pleas of his people, he declared a public fast. When after three days of fasting, rain had still not fallen, he said to his flock: “My children, be compassionate with each other and God will act compassionately toward you.”

Yet before they could distribute alms to the poor in their midst, they noticed a man who had long ago divorced his wife giving her money. Astonished, they brought the man to the attention of Rabbi Tanhuma, who asked the reason for the man’s extraordinary behavior. He answered disarmingly: “Rabbi, I saw my former wife in distress and I was overcome by compassion.”

The explanation moved Rabbi Tanhuma to pray: “Lord of all that ever existed, if this man, who had no obligation to provide for his former wife, was moved to do so when he saw her in travail, should not You, who are known to be merciful and compassionate be ever more moved to help us, who are the descendants of Your beloved Abraham, Isaac and Jacob?” And indeed rain soon fell.

In the normal course of events, Jews are called upon to model their behavior according to the attributes of God. The power of the zaddik, as this midrash boldly implies, is to reverse the order: to bring God to imitate the unpremeditated acts of human kindness.

On a more mundane level, we express our love of God most purely when our conduct inspires others to draw near to God. And that is the charisma which pervaded the packed auditorium at Columbia when Aaron Feuerstein had finished speaking.

Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat No·ah are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.