The Torah introduces Noach as “a righteous man, perfect in his generation” (Genesis 6:9). Rashi comments on this verse in the Torah that some interpret this as praise for Noach, that he was able to withstand all the corruption in his society and remain a righteous person despite all the negative influence. If he had been in a generation with other righteous people he may have been even a greater person. Others interpret that Noach was a righteous person in his generation only when compared to wicked people. If he were to have lived in the generation of Abraham, he would have been insignificant.
Why is it necessary on any level to take away Noach’s righteousness? After all, how many people does the Torah call a “tzaddik”? What is the nature of the negative approach directed at Noach?
There is a very fascinating and intriguing Midrash as Moshe stands in the hour of his own death. The Midrash tells us how he argued both with God and with all the righteous of Israel. Of Noach, Moshe says to God, “Do not mention me in the same breath as you name that wicked man!” Moshe reminds Noach that he, Noach, was told of the destruction of the world, yet spoke not a word to save anyone. Moshe, by contrast, was told repeatedly of the impending destruction of the Jewish people, and every time he boldly stepped forward and argued to save us all.
From this Midrash we can learn an approach to relate to the world. Every day, we are faced with decisions to get involved or to not get involved. We have a verse in Leviticus 19:16 that states “you shall not stand aside while your fellow’s blood is shed.” The rabbis understood from this verse that although one is not obligated to risk one’s own life for another, one is obligated to try one’s best to save another person’s life. This is true on a physical level as well as a spiritual level.
In America, we are very focused on the concept of “it is none of my business.” We even have laws stating that another person is not my responsibility. This viewpoint is antithetical to Jewish values and beliefs as sometimes it is necessary and obligatory upon a Jew to make another Jew his business. There are Jews around the world who need to be cared for, who need to be educated, who need to be loved, and it is our responsibility to make a difference in their lives. If we don’t make a difference in their lives as Jews, then we are the ones who are held accountable for not making it our business.
We can learn from Noach the importance of being a person who is able to withstand corruption, and because of that boldness he is called a “tzaddik,” a righteous person. But at the same time we must reach out to others and bring others closer to recognizing the existence of one God in the world. This is why the Torah says Noach was only a tzaddik in his generation, because he did not go the extra mile to reach out to others the way Abraham did.