By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
Every time I learn Parshas Noach, I am struck again by the words of Rashi which seek to quantify and minimize the greatness of Noach.
The posuk states that Noach was a perfectly righteous man in his generation. In a way in which no other biblical leader is measured, Rashi, the great elucidator of the Chumash for the Jews of all ages, compares the illustriousness of Noach to that of Avrohom Avinu. Though the Torah testifies to his greatness by declaring him a tzaddik tomim in his generation, Rashi is quick to quote the rabbinic debate as to whether Noach would have been recognized as a tzaddik if he had lived in the generation of Avrohom Avinu.
Obviously, there is a lesson for us to be learned here, though I doubt the lesson is to judge our leaders, theoretically rating them on a scale with giants of different generations. We are cautioned not to rate and judge our leaders, and we are taught that “Yiftach bedoro keShmuel bedoro.” Each leader is viewed as he relates to his generation. Furthermore, the Torah declares, “Uvasah el hakohein asher yihiyeh bayomim haheim” – You shall go to the kohein who is in your day and (as Chazal teach us) you should not declare that the kohein of your day doesn’t measure up to the one of previous generations.
Why, then, do Chazal go to great pains to determine how great Noach really was and if his greatness and tzidkus compares to that of Avrohom, who lived in a different place and time?
Additionally, why do Chazal, who measure the greatness of Noach, feel compelled to minimize him to the level of stating had he lived during the period of Avrohom, he wouldn’t have been considered anything – “lo haya nechshav leklum”? Why isn’t it sufficient to say that he wouldn’t have been considered a great person? What is there about Noach’s greatness that would have deemed him irrelevant during the lifetime of Avrohom?
Chazal derive that the three avos, Avrohom, Yitzchok and Yaakov, observed the Torah before it was delivered to their descendants at Har Sinai. They studied it and followed all its teachings prior to its observance becoming mandatory for the Jewish people.
While Rashi quotes the Medrash which derives that Noach studied the Torah, Chazal do not say that Noach kept the mitzvos of the Torah. Perhaps we can thus understand the need to tell us that had Noach lived during the period of Avrohom, he wouldn’t have been considered anything, for he did not keep the Torah.
Noach was a nice person who was blessed with a nobleness of character – and a lot more than that. In a generation of unparalleled evil-doers, he was the one person who stood out for favor in the eyes of G-d and, along with his family, was saved from destruction. But his kindness and his tzidkus didn’t have their roots in Torah and were thus flawed and incomplete. Had he been in the generation of Avrohom, who studied, absorbed and observed the Torah, Noach would have been considered a nothing, for without Torah we are all nothing.
This is not an indictment of Noach. It does not minimize his devotion to Hashem and his good deeds during a time of debauchery. It is a simple statement of fact.
Chazal point out a difference between Noach and Avrohom. When informed by Hashem that He intended to destroy the world, Noach didn’t pray that the decree be overturned. He accepted it and set about building the teivah to save himself, his family, and the animal kingdom. When Avrohom was told by Hashem that He was about to destroy the evil city of Sedom, Avrohom didn’t accept that fate and begged Hashem to spare the city from destruction and its people from death.
This fundamental distinction in the feelings of responsibility for other people is inherent in the difference between one whose chessed is a result of his own understanding and one whose acts of chessed are the result of Torah.
Noach’s kindness, compassion and sense of justice did not emanate from Torah, but rather from his own understanding of the concepts of being a fine person. He was aware of the serious limitations of the people of his generation and therefore, when Hashem told him that mankind as he knew it would be destroyed, he accepted their fate and did not attempt to advocate on their behalf.
Avrohom Avinu did not participate in acts of charity merely because he was a refined person who had spent his entire life devoted to self-improvement. His primary motivator was the mitzvos of the Torah Chesed (Maharal, Tiferes Yisroel, 20). Therefore, when it came to his consideration of other people, there was no limit to what he would do for someone else.
What drove Avrohom was the mitzvah of “Ve’ahavta lerei’acha kamocha,” the precept to love your fellow man as much as you love yourself. Therefore, when informed of the fate of the people of Sedom, he prayed for them in the same manner that he would have wanted someone to pray for him. His feelings for other people were governed by the principles of Torah and not by the thought process of man.
Only someone guided by the axioms of Torah and not by his own levels of understanding would beg of Hashem to spare the lives of the Sedomites. Only a person whose direction is from Torah would interrupt a conversation with Hashem in order to treat other people the way he would have wanted to be treated and offer three travelers lodging and a good meal. Such behavior is beyond the realm of moral righteousness which man can reach through his own understanding.
This point is reinforced in a new sefer of shmuessen of the Alter of Slabodka, where he quotes (Chapter 294) from the Tana Devei Eliyahu that in the final judgment after one leaves this world, one of the first questions we will all be asked is, “Himlachtah es chavercha alecha benachas ruach,“ whether we subjugated ourselves to our friends with an inner calmness. He points to this as an example of how far-reaching the mitzvah of Ve’ahavta lerei’acha kamocha is. Surely this degree of love is way above the concept of brotherly love which people would reach based upon their own understanding.
In the sefer Nesivos Ohr, which Rav Yitzchok Blazer wrote about his rebbi, Rav Yisroel Salanter, he recounts that his rebbi told him of the time that he was walking to shul on Erev Yom Kippur and a G-d-fearing man was approaching from the other direction. The man had a look of fear on his face and tears were streaming down his cheeks. Rav Yisroel asked him what his problem was and what was bothering him. The man was in such a state of fear that he did not answer Rav Yisroel and continued walking.
Rav Yisroel is quoted there as telling his talmid, “When I passed that man, I thought to myself, ‘What is it my fault if you are so G-d-fearing and you so are so afraid of the impending Yom Hadin? What does that have to do with me? You have an obligation to respond to my question calmly!'”
That is the extent to which the obligation to be mamlich es chavercha alecha benachas ruach reaches. This is a level that only a person suffused with Torah can reach.
The Chofetz Chaim carries the obligation further and writes in a letter (number 70 in the sefer of his letters) that we are obligated to work on helping out people as much as we would work on helping ourselves. If we can help someone, no matter the difficulty involved, we are obligated to do so, even if it involves putting ourselves out physically, spiritually or financially.
Rav Yitzchok of Volozhin writes in the hakdamah to his father’s monumental sefer, Nefesh Hachaim, that his father, Rav Chaim of Volozhin, would rebuke him for not feeling the pain of someone who was suffering. His father would say, “A person is not created for himself, but rather to help other people as much as he possibly can.”
Thus, although Noach didn’t pray for the people of his generation and didn’t feel their pain, he may not have been obligated to and the way he acted didn’t take away from his greatness. Prior to the deliverance of the Torah, not only was there no obligation to act the way Avrohom did in relation to the people of his generation, but the entire concept didn’t exist. Noach was a tzaddik in his day because he kept himself and his family holy and that was all that was expected of man at the period of time during which Noach lived.
Once Avrohom Avinu came to the realization that there is a G-d and accepted upon himself the mitzvos of the Torah, it no longer sufficed to be a tzaddik tomim based upon mortal understanding of right and wrong. From the time of Avrohom onward, a person could only be considered great if he followed the Torah.
This is what Chazal and Rashi are teaching us by stating that had Noach lived in the generation of Avrohom, he wouldn’t have been considered anything – “lo haya nechshav leklum.” They want to make sure that as children of Avrohom, Yitzchok and Yaakov, we are aware of our obligations to those around us.
We have to be caring about other people. We have to help other people the way we would want to be helped if we were in their situation. We have to be prepared to do everything in our ability to put ourselves into the person’s situation to enable us to feel their pain and do everything we are capable of to be of assistance to them.
As bnei Torah, we must have at our core the knowledge to be cognizant of other people’s feelings and needs, and never to act selfishly and disdainfully towards anyone. We must never be oblivious to other people’s problems. We must daven for them and be a source of succor and sustenance for our friends, neighbors and others we come in contact with.
Chazal derive from the posuk which states “Es Elokim hishaleich Noach – Noach walked together with Hashem,” that Avrohom was greater than Noach, for Noach required a crutch to support himself while Avrohom didn’t. Avrohom was able to strengthen himself and walk alone.
Once again, we would think that the posuk’s testimony that Noach walked with G-d is a sign of virtue. But Chazal make it a point to indicate that this is a sign of weakness. Perhaps this is for the same reason that we expounded upon previously. Since Noach didn’t accept upon himself to observe the mitzvos of the Torah, he was in constant need of support and wasn’t able to raise his level of righteousness on his own. Avrohom Avinu, who kept the Torah, was able to grow through Torah study and observance. Torah raises the level of those who cleave to it and allows them to rise to superhuman levels. Thus, Avrohom, the shomer Torah umitzvos, was able to raise himself to unsurpassed levels.
We, too, who have been given the benefit of Torah, can raise ourselves to lofty levels of character and behavior if we seriously commit ourselves to its study and observance. That is the mandate handed down to us by Avrohom Avinu and part of what makes us special. It is what gives us the ability to stand out among the nations of the world. Let us live up to it.