Sunday, October 20, 2013


If a friend woke me in the middle of the night and asked me to share a Dvar Torah on Parshat Noach, I’d probably come out with the one about whether or not Noach would have been an even greater tzadik, or not such a tzadik at all if he'd lived in Avraham’s generation. This is also an easy and popular route for a pulpit rabbi to take: Step One – Read pasukaloud, Step Two – Read Rashi aloud, Step Three – Pause meaningfully, Step Four - Connect with current events.

The pivot of this famous Rashi on Noach is the word “bedorotav.” Noach was referred to as a tzadik in his generation. In addressing this curious description, the rabbis go in two directions. One approach says that he was a tzadik in his generation, because he was the most righteous man in unrighteous times, but if he’d have lived at the same time as a righteous man such as Avraham, he’d have paled in comparison. The medrashpresents an analogy of a small coin that is valuable compared to lesser coins, but put next to a currency of greater worth it becomes inconsequential. The other take is that if Noach acted nobly in a lowly generation how much more so would he have shined as a hero had he lived in the same time as an Avraham. The medrash compares this to a girl that was born into brothels and rises above the immorality that surrounds her.

The problem with the discussion about what Noach would have been like in Avraham’s generation is that the two men were alive at the same time.If you do the math that’s given in the Torah itself it becomes clear that Avraham and Noach overlapped for 58 years (easy to remember because it’s the gematriah of Noach).
Why does the Medrash cited by Rashi say that Noach and Avraham were not in the same generation? This is, in fact, based on the text of the Torah. Right after the flood the Torah states that Noach dies. He lived for three and a half more centuries! The text is teaching us that Noach was not involved in society, and thus even though he was technically alive, he was not considered as living in the same generation as Avraham. Though he was technically alive, Noach was all but buried.

The positive and negative views of Noach each base themselves on the same word bedorotav. This reflects the idea that Noach’s greatest positive and negative qualities stemmed from the same source. This fits with the commentary of the Ran (Breishit 6:9-12) who takes the common conception of Noach as a “Tzadik in Peltz” – someone who kept solely to himself and turns it on its head. The Ran says that Noach’s generation was so far-gone that he did the right thing. He explains that the secret of Noach’s righteousness is revealed to us in the words “et haElokim hithalech Noach – Noach walked with G-d.” The word “et” connotes a direct connection to G-d, while implying a total separation from the people of his time. The fact that this behavior is described immediately following the statement that Noach was righteous and pure teaches us that the method through which he achieved righteousness and purity during his life before the mabul.

After the flood Noach continued using the same modus operandi that he employed beforehand. A new approach was called for at this time. Because he separated himself from society in the era following the flood Noach was unable to help others during this time of his life. Furthermore, this time around his approach sadly led Noach to his own decline in status. After the flood there was a chance for a new beginning but this new start called for outreach. Instead of relating with others Noach cocooned, just as he had done before the flood. What was strength became weakness.

It is often the case that people use one approach to survive at one stage of their lives. But later in life they need to move on from this approach and have trouble doing so. What leads to success at one time can lead to failure in another context. A therapist friend tells me that therapy is often about getting someone to halt a behavior that once saved his or her life, but is now restricting them from moving forward in life. For example if someone – G-d forbid – was abused when they were young they may learn to protect themselves by being very private. However when they enter the broader world of relationships, community, and work they need to learn to trust people and not be so secretive.
May we all be blessed to cultivate our strengths at the various stages of our lives.

May we all be blessed to cultivate our appropriate strengths and not allow them to morph into fatal flaws.
(The essence of this piece is based on the thought of Rabbi Yitzchak Twersky)

No comments: