Comparative Religiosity

Rabbi Wagensberg
Parshas Noach
Comparative Religiosity


Our story opens with the Torah attributing many complimentary descriptions to Noach. He is called an "Ish Tzaddik Tamim" (a perfectly righteous man; Gn. 6:9). Although the verse praises Noach, there are several Sages in the Talmud who do not have such a high opinion of the man.

For example, it was taught in the academy of Rebbi Yishmael that the harsh decree of destruction fell upon Noach as well. It was only by the grace of God Who favored Noach that he was saved (Sanhedrin, chap. 11, "Cheilek", pg. 108a; Gn. 6:8).

If, according to the letter of the law, Noach was also supposed to perish with everybody else, obviously, he was not such a righteous person.

Other Sages maintain that if Noach would have lived in the generation of Avraham Avinu (our father), he would not have been considered righteous at all (Sanhedrin, chap. 11, "Cheilek", pg. 108a).

Once again, the impression we are getting from our Sages is that Noach was not so righteous.

This is very puzzling because if we have an opportunity to understand Noach in a positive light, why are some of the sages determined to portray him in a negative way, even if it means bending over backwards to do so? Aren't we instructed by the Sages to judge people favorably (Avos, chap. 1, "Moshe Kibel", Mishnah 6, Yehoshuah ben Prachia)? We should certainly give Noach's the benefit of the doubt because the verse explicitly calls him righteous.

Moreover, if indeed Noach deserved to perish with his generation, how could God have favored him? It is not God's way to display favoritism, as it says, "Who does not show favor and Who does not accept a bribe?" (Dt. 10:17)

The way in which Hashem saved Noach is also questionable. The Midrash says that Noach was locked up in the Ark for twelve months (Bereishis Rabba, 34:1). This is just like the maximum sentence for a wicked person in purgatory. The Tanchumah (Noach, #2) adds that life for Noach in the Ark was very uncomfortable. He never slept because he had to keep feeding the animals around the clock.

You know, God has so many methods of salvation at His disposal. Hashem could have put Noach and his family on top of a mountain. Noach could have lived in a log cabin with a ranch for all the animals. Hashem could have worked it out that the waters would not reach the top of that mountain. Why would God punish Noach by locking him in a stuffy nauseating Ark for a year?

The Chassam Sofer says that Noach did not deserve to be saved in his own right. This is because Noach neither rebuked or prayed on behalf of his generation sufficiently.

I must interject. Something struck me regarding the verses in this week's parsha which supports the Chassam Sofer. Hashem tells Noach that he is fed up with this immoral generation. God tells Noach that He is going to wipe them all out. Hashem adds that Noach and his family will be spared. What was Noach's reaction? Basically, Noach said, "OK, when do I get started?" We can see this from the verse that says, "And Noach did all that God commanded him to do" (Gn. 6:22). This may look like a praise of Noach since it says that Noach obeyed God's wishes. However, I think that those words also contain a backhanded insult to Noach. Let me describe it this way.

Imagine God informing Avraham Avinu or Moshe Rabbenu (our teacher) that the entire planet is about to be wiped out. What do you think their reaction would be? The Sefer Torah would be two columns longer! Avraham would have prayed on humanities behalf with pleads such as, "Are You going to kill the righteous with the wicked? What if I find fifty righteous people in the world?" Moshe would have argued that global destruction is not consistent with God's attributes of mercy.

What was Noach's reaction? "OK Boss. Whatever You say." Noach's silence displays his stature. Noach did not rank among the top righteous people of all time.

This supports the notion of the Chassam Sofer that posits that Noach was not a righteous person in his own right. However, Hashem still saved him because God evaluated Noach against the wicked people of his generation. Compared to them, Noach looked righteous.

Therefore, the verses keep on stressing that "in his generation" Noach was righteous (Gn. 6:9; 7:1). Only by contrast to them did Noach appear to be a tzaddik (Ben Porat Yosef). This also explains another verse which says that God blotted out all existence, and "only Noach remained" (Gn. 7:23). On a deeper level, this means that when the wicked of his time were still alive, Noach was called a Tzaddik Tamim (a perfectly righteous man). However, once God blotted all the wicked people out, "Only Noach remained." Meaning, in the absence of wicked people to compare Noach to, all that was left was "Noach", without any appellations or descriptions of praise (Ein Yehosef).

This explains how Noach found favor in God's eyes. Although Noach was not righteous in his own right, he WAS righteous compared to the people around him. This may not be the ideal, but it does have value. Noach did deserve to be saved because he kept himself above the wickedness of his generation. Since Noach did have that merit, Hashem saved him. This is not contradictory to God's policy of not showing favoritism. God will not favor a completely undeserving person just because. However, it is perfectly fine to spare somebody if they do have merit, no matter how weak the merit is (Shvilei Pinchas).

This also explains why Hashem saved Noach with an Ark and not with a log cabin. It was to teach us that ideally it is preferable to be righteous in one's own right. Noach was being punished for allowing himself to settle on only being righteous by comparison to the generation that surrounded him (Shvilei Pinchas).

Although we have established that it is better to be righteous than to just be righteous by comparison, nevertheless, we benefit tremendously from the fact that God spared Noach because he was only righteous in contrast to the other people alive during his time.

The Zerah Kodesh points out that since the time of creation, saving Noach was the first rescue ever. Therefore, Noach's rescue serves as the root of all future salvations, especially regarding the redemptions of the Jewish people.

This is because all Jewish souls were wrapped up in Noach's soul. There is a hint to this in the opening statement of our parsha. It says, "Noach Ish Tzaddik Tamim" (Noach was a perfectly righteous man). The acronym of these four words are: nun, aleph, tzaddi, and tuf. Together they spell "Natzas." What does "Natzas" mean? Absolutely nothing! However, the numerical value of "Natzas" is 541. 541 is a propitious number because it is the same numerical value of "Yisrael." This teaches us that every single "Yisrael" (Jew) was part of Noach's grand soul.

At this point, I must press the pause button on the Zerah Kodesh and interject. In the past we have shared commentaries who have taught us that all our Jewish souls were part of Adam Harishon's grand soul. How can the Zerah Kodesh tell us that all our souls were part of Noach?

Perhaps we could suggest that there is no contradiction between the two. This is because Noach is considered to be Adam number two. Think about it. When God created a world, who was the man? Adam. Well, God destroyed that world and started the world over again. Who was the man of this new world? Noach. Therefore, Noach was like the new Adam-- kind of like a "take two."

Noach was even called Adam. When Noach began to plant after the flood, the verse refers to him as "Ish Ha'adamah" (man of the ground; Gn. 9:20). The root of "Adamah" is "Adam." The first Adam was called Adam because he was a derivative of the Adamah. Since Noach was Adam number two, he was also called that title.

Moreover, Adam ate from the Tree of Knowledge (Gn. 3:6). According to Rebbi Meir, the Tree of Knowledge was a grape vine (Sanhedrin, chap. 8, "Ben Sorer Umoreh", pg. 70a). According to some commentaries, Adam was supposed to wait until Friday night and drink the wine from those grapes during Kiddush. Since Adam did not wait, but rather drank hastily from the wine on Friday afternoon, he was punished.

Noach tried to fix that mistake. When Noach descended from the Ark, he saw the devastation that the flood had wrought. Gone were the highways, gone were the cities. No longer were there any civilizations. The scene was downright depressing! Noach reasoned that now is the time for some wine because wine gladdens the hearts of men (Psa. 104:15). This was an attempt to drink wine in the appropriate time which would correct the first sin of rushing into wine inappropriately.

Later, Noach was found walking around his tent naked (Gn. 9:21). Some view this as lewd. However, Adam also walked around Gan Eden naked (Gn. 2:25). Perhaps Noach was trying to bring the world back to the level of Adam Harishon before the sin. After all, this would be the job of Adam number two.

We wanted to know how all our souls were part of Noach's grand soul if we already established that all our souls were part of Adam's grand soul. The answer is, Yes! Since Noach was Adam number two, just as all our souls were part of Adam number one, similarly, all our souls were part of Adam number two. Just like we are all descendants of both Adam and Noach, we are also part of both of their grand souls.

Now we can get back to the teaching of the Ropshitzer Rebbe in his Zerah Kodesh. He says that it is not arbitrary that God orchestrated the first rescue mission to be done in just such a way that the person saved was not righteous in his own right, but rather, only considered to be righteous by comparison to the wicked of his generation. This is because the first rescue broke the ice and paved the way for all future rescues that God would perform on behalf of the Jewish people. Even if the Jewish people are not righteous in their own right, God will still rescue them from annihilation as long as they are just doing a little bit better than the nations around them.

This follows the pattern of "Ma'aseh Avos Siman Labanim" (whatever happened to the forefathers serves as a precursor indicating that this will be repeated with their descendants; Rebbi Yehoshuah D'Sichnin quoting Rebbi Levi, Bereishis Rabba, 70:9).

We even mention this rescue of Noach during the liturgy of Mussaf on Rosh Hashanah, in the section known as "Zichronos" (Rememberances). The reason for this is that we are asking Hashem, on the Day of Judgement, that He remember what He did for Noach. Just as Noach was rescued, not because he was actually righteous but because he was just better than the people around him, so too may God rescue us even though we may not be righteous in our own right, since we are at least faring better than the nations around us.

However, we must wonder what it is that we can do to ensure that we are indeed doing better than the nations around us. We are going to explore this right now.

The Kedushas Levi (Parshas Bereishis) says that the way of righteous people is to learn from every person and from every circumstance that they encounter. For example, if a Tzaddik (righteous person) witnesses wicked people who use lustful passions to carry out sins, he says to himself, "Wow, look at that. Passion can really help a person go somewhere. You know what? I'm going to use passion in the service of God."

In other words, the wicked have created incredible vehicles for obtaining their desires. Some of these vehicles include lust, jealousy, anger, and honor. The Tzaddik says to himself that he is going to adopt those vehicles. It's just that he is going to make a U-turn and drive them towards the service of God. The Tzaddik transforms negativity into positivity by harnessing and directing all traits towards spiritual pursuits. There is a time and a place for everything, and there is a way of how to go about it. If the wicked can use these instruments for something so fleeting that withers, how much more so may the righteous use those tools for that which lasts forever.

There is a verse which supports this idea. It says, "Mai-oiyevai Tichakemeini Mitzvosechah" (Psa. 119:98). The accepted translation of this verse is, "Your commandments make me wiser than my enemies." However, the Berditchever Rebbe offers an alternative translation which is, "From my enemies I grow wise how to perform Your commandments." This novel translation serves as a source to this idea.

The Tiferes Shlomo adds that this is what is meant when it says that Rivka took the "Bigdei Chamudos" (desirous cloths) of Eisav, and dressed Ya'akov in them (Gn. 27:15). What were those desirous clothes? Pierre Cardin? The Tiferes Shlomo says that the word "Chamudos" is related to "Lo Sachmod" (do not covet; Ex. 20:14). In other words, the "Bigdei Chamudos" were Eisav's character flaws such as lust, jealousy, etc. These are traits that Eisav "clothed" himself in. This was how Eisav carried himself.

Rivka told Ya'akov that it is high time that he learns from his older brother, Eisav, and dress himself in these qualities for the purpose of serving Hashem even better. If he does, then he will certainly be deserving to receive the blessings from Yitzchak.

This is how we can always keep one step ahead of the nations of the world. By learning from their methods at achieving their goals, and harnessing them in service to God. Once we do this, we are considered righteous by comparison to them. Then, we can be deserving of salvation even if we are not yet righteous in our own right.

Therefore, so many Sages were bent on expounding on Noach in a negative way. They understood that if Noach was indeed righteous only by comparison to the wicked, it would serve the Jewish people well because as long as we maintain a better spiritual standing than the nations around us, we can also benefit by being rescued from the difficult times that we experience. Expounding on Noach negatively was a way of defending the Jewish people over the ages (Shvilei Pinchas).

Since we could all probably use a rescue in at least one area of life, and since many of us may not yet be one of the top ten righteous people in this generation, let us at least try to be Tzaddikim with respect to the nations. This exercise consists of searching for one trait that we have been exposed to from the nations around us. Let us harness that trait by directing it towards the service of God.

For example, have you ever been to Manhattan in the morning during the week? Everybody is rushing. Cars are zipping by. Hundreds of pedestrians wait at every corner for the light to turn green so that they can dart to where they are going. Crowded trains are streaking in all directions. Where is everybody running? What's all the excitement about? It all boils down to one word. MONEY! Now, let me be clear. Working to provide for your family is not a bad thing. It is a mitzvah. After all, it's forbidden to steal.

However, there are some people who have made quite a mint already and yet they continue to kill themselves just to make a buck. Why? Because some people want to live up to the Constitution of the United States of America which preaches about "the Pursuit of Happiness" which some people define as more materialism. Another car, another home, more vacations, etc. We are not suggesting that people are bad because of this, but we must admit that this is not a Torah value. If the motivation behind making so much money would be to support orphans and widows or to support soup kitchens etc., it would be aligned with Torah values. However, some people are just interested in becoming independently wealthy to enjoy the pleasures of this world.

We should look down on Manhattan from the 83rd floor of the Empire State Building and observe all the movement down below. We should say to ourselves, "Wow, what zealousness! If they can race with alacrity for something so temporary, how much more so can I demonstrate dispatch with respect to learning Torah and doing mitzvos."

Sometimes we think that we already achieved zealousness because we get up at 5:30am to davin (pray). This is great but I don't think that we should receive an award for this because at 4:30am, cars are already racing into the city to get an early start on the new business day.

Imagine using this experience to rise even fifteen minutes earlier than we do. We could get more learning in or more praying in or we could use that time to organize a chessed project. Doing this even just once a week would be an application of this lesson. We would be considered a little bit better than the nations around us and thus deserve to be rescued from our difficult situations.

After accomplishing whatever mitzvah during those extra moments each morning, we could offer a prayer to God saying, "Master of the Universe, You loved Noach and rescued him, not because he was an actual righteous person, but because he was considered righteous by comparison to the wicked around him. Similarly, Hashem our God, save me, my family, and all the Jewish people from tragedies even though we are not yet actual righteous people in our own rights, but just because we are doing better than some of the wicked nations that surround us."

So, may we all be blessed to learn from the nations around us and be considered tzaddikim by contrast to them so that Hashem demonstrates His love for us, Yisrael, and saves us individually and nationally from the Mabul (flood) that is going on around us in this world, and rebuild the ultimate "Teivah" which is the Beis Hamikdsash (Temple) with its Holy Ark within.