Like my page and make comments on Facebook! (and share with others)

Friday, October 23, 2009

Was Noah a Righteous Man?

Noah haya ish tadik v’tamim b’dorotav. Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his age. This simple verse with which our parasha opens has been the basis for much discussion by the rabbis and others through the generations. In 12th century France, perhaps Rashi encapsulated the argument best. To paraphrase him “on the one hand the fact that Noah could be a righteous man in an age when everyone else was so debased and immoral makes him more worthy; on the other hand, he was only considered righteous in comparison to the unrighteous ones of his age. Had he lived in the time of Abraham, when righteousness abounded, he would not have been considered righteous at all.” So… will the real Noah please stand up. Was he a righteous man bravely facing the injustice of his age, or was he simply an OK guy who seemed good because everyone else was so bad?

The consensus of our rabbis of old seemed to be that Noah was what they call in Yiddish, a tzaddik im pelz. Literally this means a righteous person in a fur coat. Personally, this one of my favorite images. This is so not only because of the possibility for humor to be found in the image of Noah sitting around in a fur coat (something that not even Bill Cosby could have imagined), but because the image is so descriptive in its simplicity. Imagine a freezing cold day in a time when central heating was non-existent. In those days there were two ways of keeping warm, wrapping yourself in fur or blankets or lighting a fire. One way you take care of your needs only. The other way you may not be quite as warm yourself, but you also help give warmth to others. Noah clearly seems to be the former at first glance. He takes care of himself and his family and the animals on the ark, but does little to help the rest of humanity. This is in stark contrast to his descendant Abraham who, when told about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, argued with God to save the people of those cities if even 10 righteous people could be found.

Noah is righteous because he follows God’s word, but he is lacking because he doesn’t try to help others. Or was he?

It is true that one has to look at the nature of Noah’s righteousness in the context of his generation. But the different interpretations do not necessarily make him out to be more or less righteous. Perhaps then it is not a matter of how righteous he was, but what was the nature of his righteousness. Perhaps it wasn’t that he was a tzaddik im pelz, taking care only of his own needs. Perhaps instead he was simply a humble man who didn’t have the strength to argue with God because he didn’t view himself as particularly righteous or as a leader. Again, we contrast this with Abraham who was clearly a leader and a strong personality both in the biblical text and in the midrash. After all, it takes a lot of strength and security to smash your father’s idols – both literally and figuratively.

The Hassidic rebbe Yechiel of Alexander reminds us of the teaching of his rebbe, Simhah Bunem of Przysucha that each of us must carry two slips of paper in our pockets. On the first slip is written the verse from Genesis (18:27) “I am but dust and ashes.” On the second slip is written the Talmudic verse “For my sake was the world created” (Sanhedrin 37). Depending on where we are in our lives each of these verses is meant to serve as a corrective. For the yetzer ha’rah, the inclination to evil that exists within each of us, can lead us to feelings of self-exaltation self-denigration depending on the situation. Simcha Bunem’s teaching reminds us that when we are feeling an excess of pride we must remember that each of us is but dust and ashes. Conversely, when feeling worthless we must not forget that the world was created for each of our sakes. Noah, says Simha Bunem, surrounded by evil and licentiousness must have felt dejected, depressed and yet he acted as if the world were created for him. That was at the heart of his righteousness. The text says that he was righteous and blameless. Simha Bunem interprets this as meaning that Noah viewed himself as righteous and blameless because he held fast to the belief that the world was created for his sake. Now you could argue that he took this dictum too much to heart by ignoring everyone else and yet, says Simha Bunem, he needed to hold fast to this belief in order to remain righteous amidst such wickedness. However, he continues, had Noah lived in the time of Abraham he would have instead considered himself as dust and ashes. Not because he was unrighteous, but because in a time when one is surrounded by righteousness a degree of humility is needed in order to keep things in balance.

And so that brings us back to Rashi’s original question: was Noah considered righteous only because he lived in the time he did? Based on the Hassidic sources I just cited, I would say that the answer is no. Rather, the verse can be interpreted to mean that Noah considered himself as righteous in order to stand up to the evil in the world and not be swallowed up by it. Had he lived in Abraham’s time he would have considered himself as dust in order to compel himself to continue his righteous behavior rather than resting on the laurels of that generation. In either case Noah would be the same Noah exhibiting the same behavior.

But the question still remains, why didn’t he stand up to God and challenge the destruction of humanity as Abraham challenged the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah? Perhaps the answer is simply that Abraham had the luxury of being able to stand up to God because, with the exception of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah (and probably a few others), he had basically lived among the righteous. On the other hand, Noah – surrounded by evil -- knew that if the people of the world were saved it would simply provide more opportunities for him, and the few other righteous people to be tempted into joining the crowd. Noah became a tzaddik im pelz, wrapping himself in the protective warmth of his righteousness in order to protect him from being dragged down to the level of everyone else around him.

I believe this interpretation holds a message for our world today. So many people today feel as if maintaining the moral high road is a difficult, if not impossible task. Drugs, violence, prejudice, excess and greed seem to dominate so much of our society. Whether in the streets of our cities, the halls of our school, on television and movies or in the seats of government and finance, today there are many who are held up as virtuous though they are deemed so only in contrast with the corruption that surrounds them. There are others in public positions pretend to be virtuous because they don’t want to be associated with corruption.

For our children today trying to be righteous is not an easy task. They are surrounded by peers and others who are participating in less than desirable activities; they see leaders on both the national and local level who are engaged in immoral activity or exhibiting pseudo-morality by clearly skirting around certain issues rather than simply confessing to human transgressions. It is easy in this kind of environment to believe that we are all but dust and ashes and to sink to the lowest common denominator. But the answer from Jewish tradition is to do just the opposite. Like Noah we must remember in the face of everything around us that the world was created for the sake of each and every one of us. We must also remember that, though it may seem like corruption and immorality is rampant, as in the days of Noah, that there are more people out there who are taking the high road and acting in moral ways than the media and others would lead us to believe. In order to teach ourselves and our children to be righteous in our age we must look up to those who serve as examples, whether they be leaders, politicians, teachers or clergy or whether it’s simply the person down the street or your local mail carrier.

We must also try not to be a tzaddik im pelz whenever possible. For when we do we are closing ourselves off from the rest of the community and the others who may be on the path with us. We are separating ourselves from those other people striving for righteousness who can support us and to whom we can lend support. However, if like Noah, any of us are put in a situation where it seems that everyone around us is taking the low road it is then that we must wrap ourselves in the warmth of Torah and tradition and of the ethics and values imparted to us by our heritage and by our families and cut ourselves off from those around us – no matter who they are or how attractive they might seem to us – if we are in danger of being dragged down with them. This is the message that we must give to our youth and that is the way we must all live our lives if we are to turn our world around and work towards the day when we can say of all humanity that we are righteous in our age – or in any age. Shabbat Shalom.

No comments:

Follow by Email

Blogs That I Try to Follow