"These are the offspring of Noah - Noah was a righteous man, perfect in his
generation; Noah walked with G-d." (Beraishis/Genesis 6:9) Why does Noah's
spiritual greatness need to be qualified by the relative "in his
generation"? Rashi, quoting Medrash Rabbah (Beraishis 30:9) offers two
perspectives. It can be understood as praise, for if he was righteous in
this wicked generation, how much more so if he had been in a generation
with righteous people. There is also the negative implication, that he was
only righteous relative to the sinners of his generation; but had he lived
in the era of our forefather Avraham, he would have been considered
"nothing" of significance.
Granted that, from the second perspective, Noah was not of the same
spiritual stature as Avraham, but why does Medrash Rabbah reduce Noah to
"nothing"? And why the specificity of Avraham's era? Moshe was the greatest
of prophets (see Devarim/Deuteronomy 34:10); why not compare Noah to him?
Rabbi Shimon Schwab (1908-1995; student of the great Mirrer Yeshiva and
Rabbi of congregations in pre-war Germany and Baltimore, he is renowned for
his leadership of the German-Jewish community in Washington Heights,
Manhattan from 1958 through the end of the 20th century) explains that
Noah's righteousness was unique to his own generation. Noah lived for 600
years prior to the flood, the last 120 of which he knew of the flood's
impending arrival. Throughout this entire era he did not influence even one
person to repent and follow G-d's ways. No one beyond his immediate family
had any interest in entering the ark. What was the corruption of Noah's
generation that mandated such Divine destruction as the flood? They were
extremely self-centered. G-d's decree against them was sealed because they
systematically engaged in theft from one another, but the thefts were
always of legally trivial amounts that were not punishable under the law.
They were totally engrossed in material acquisition and selfishly pursued
their goals relentlessly. Unfortunately, Noah was not completely untainted
by the pervading attitude of his time. While he was righteous and dedicated
his life to spiritual growth and developing a relationship with the Divine,
he focus was on his own spirituality. Compared to our forefather Avraham,
who developed an intense relationship with G-d but also taught thousands of
others his monotheistic belief and the importance of emulating G-d's
kindness in our interactions with others, Noah's righteousness was "nothing".
Today's society and its values confront us with many spiritual challenges.
The immorality and hedonism that are the ingrained values and goals of
those around us crown us as "righteous" for simply not succumbing, for
successfully locking out those corrupt characteristics. But true
righteousness - emulating the Divine by helping others to grow in their
spirituality - changes the world around us for the better as our connection
to the Divine grows ever stronger, relegating the notion of simply standing
strong to seem like "nothing" at all.