The Good Rasha and the Bad Tzadik1
Noach was a righteous man, perfect in his generations. Noach walked with
No good goes unrewarded. People can be considered good for different kinds
of admirable behavior, and even earn the distinction of being called
righteous. The Torah doesn’t simply call Noach “righteous” and nothing more,
because righteousness would have been insufficient to save him from the
wide-spread calamity that engulfed everyone else. In times of monumental
disaster, Chazal teach, even the righteous are not spared.
Therefore, the Torah tells us that he was also “perfect.” Actually, it
doesn’t call Noach perfect, but calls his righteousness perfect. There are
more- and less- perfect kinds of righteousness; Noach achieved the more
significant kind. The term tzadik describes a person’s relationship with
HKBH. It says nothing of the way he treats human beings. Perfected
righteousness, however, means that Noach was good as well to the people of
The distinction between two types of tzadik is a familiar one. Chazal employ
it, for instance, in speaking of the difference between a tzadik who is
treated well in this world, to one whose circumstances are not so happy.
Only the tzadik gamur, the “complete” tzadik, is guided through a succession
of untroubled years.
Elsewhere, Chazal differentiate between the “good” tzadik, and the
tzadik who is not good. They find room for this distinction in a pasuk: “Say
[about the] righteous that it is good, for they shall eat the fruits of
their deeds. But woe to the wicked who does evil, for the payment for his
deeds will be done to him.” If we must tell a tzadik that it is good,
there must be a kind of righteousness that is not so good. The “good”
tzadik, Chazal explain, is one who is good to his fellow man. He can expect
to taste the fruit of his deeds even in this world. Similarly, there is a
wicked person who is not so wicked, because he is good to people. Only the
thoroughly wicked – the wicked who does evil, meaning that he treats people
evilly – will experience punishment for his deeds in the here and now.
If this sounds correct, it shouldn’t! What are we relating to the tzadik
when we tell him that he will only see reward in this world if he is good to
people? He need not be righteous at all for that to happen. Even the wicked
are rewarded in this world for their kindness to others! Moreover, Chazal
teach us that even an idolater will be rewarded for his noble behavior to
other humans, as in the case of Dama ben Nesina, who was so richly rewarded
for the respectful way he treated his father.
Something is missing in our equation. It is found in the final phrase that
describes Noach. Noach “walked with G-d.” Noach was not such a righteous
person by his nature, by “accident” of birth. He had to work at it, forcing
himself to do as Hashem would want him to do, because he made himself walk
with G-d. Gradually, he became a better person, perfect in his righteousness
because he became good to people as well as to his Creator.
This made the difference between surviving the Flood and perishing along
with everyone else. Righteousness – even perfect righteousness - might
entitle a person to protection that lies within the laws of Nature. To ride
out the effects of the Mabul, however, Noach required Divine protection that
ignored teva, rather than worked with it and through it. This will only
happen to the tzadik who goes beyond his own nature, and turns himself into
a better person, which includes goodness to other people.
This change is expected and predictable. When the tzadik nurtures his
righteousness through his effort, responding to Hashem’s Will, he gradually
transforms himself. The natural outcome of sustained righteousness is
growing into a loftier position. If anything, it is his initial position
that is artificial and cannot last. The tzadik who is not by his own nature
good to others lacks this goodness only at the beginning of his development.
He may find it difficult to be good and kind, but eventually, he becomes
permeated with Hashem’s goodness, and develops the capacity that first
evaded him. Similarly, the wicked person who is good to others cannot
persist in this goodness. When he distances himself from Hashem, he
gradually becomes more thoroughly wicked, so that after a while, he no
longer is good to others either.
This, then, is the meaning of the verse in Yeshaya. Only the tzadik “gamur”
reaps the fruit of his good in this world, because only the person who is
righteous in his behavior to Hashem shows goodness to people on a sustained
basis. “Gamur” does not mean absolute, or to the fullest measure. It means
complete, as in the end of a long process. The tzadik who stays righteous
for a long time because of his commitment to Hashem gradually becomes a
completed tzadik, a better person in his relationship with others, even if
this was not his original inclination. Similarly, the wicked person
ultimately loses his good nature towards his fellow man. He becomes
thoroughly evil, so that he is punished even in this world.
Of Servants and Slaves4
Cursed is Canaan. A slave of slaves shall he be to his brothers.
Canaan did not hold exclusive rights to the institution of slavery. Both
Shem and Yefes would see many of their descendants sold into slavery, or
pressed into full servitude as spoils of war. Neither can it be said that
something about Canaan would ensure that all his progeny would become
slaves. This simply is not true. Some of Canaan’s offspring would lead
great, free nations.
Canaan’s curse was more subtle. While all families of Man would produce some
slaves, those that stemmed from Canaan would better fit the role. The
descendants of Shem and Yefes who became slaves would show inner resistance
to slavery. Their yearning for freedom would in time pay off, and they would
shake off their shackles. Slaves from the stock of Canaan would find slavery
suitable and bearable, and persist in their lowly station.
Canaan’s curse was that many of his offspring would be altogether suited for
the job of slavery.
1. Based on Ha’amek Davar and Harchev Davar, Bereishis 6:9
2. Kiddushin 40A
3. Yeshaya 3:10-11
4. Based on Ha’amek Davar, Bereishis 9:25