How does one survive alone on an island? How does one maintain basic goodness in an environment that is entirely corrupt? How did Noah do it?
On a smaller scale, how do we maintain our values, be them Torah values or humanistic, when our societies don’t see things the same way, often being diametrically opposed to the way of life we aspire to live? What happens to our moral compass when the very hands we use for direction bend or spin out of control?
There is a discussion in numerous places in the Talmud concerning the reward of fulfilling a Mitzvah when one is not obliged. On the surface it is intuitive that one who is not obliged, but fulfills the Mitzvah nevertheless, has done a greater act that one who is obliged to fulfill a Mitzvah. Ultimately, however, the Talmud concludes that one who is obliged performs the greater act than the one who is not obliged.
The reason for this is not articulated in the Talmud, but we can well imagine why the sages of the Talmud, who were so attuned to the psychological makeup of man, reached this conclusion. Humans have a natural resistance to submit to the rule of another. We don’t like being told what to do. It is far easier to do something nice for another when it is not required of me. It is more gratifying for me as well. But if that same action is demanded of me, I don’t want to do it as much. Humans are contrary creatures. We accept authority reluctantly. For this reason it is more difficult to perform a Mitzvah which the Torah obligates me in than to perform a Mitzvah in which I am not obligated. “Greater is the obligated one who fulfills than one who is not obligated and fulfills.”
Noah lived in a world described by the Torah as entirely corrupt. The Midrashic interpretations describe the era of Noah as so far gone that even the animals had become corrupt. The world was turned on its head. There was no morality, no consideration of another. It was driven by selfishness and extortion. People grabbed and had no scruples. Noah was an island. Somehow he preserved a sense of goodness and morality, an objective righteousness that stood in sharp contrast to the evil society he lived in. Somehow he was able to remain untouched, uninfluenced by the ills of his neighbors.
Some people must live in an insulated environment lest they be influenced by the evil around them. Others, quite the contrary, thrive in environments where they stand out and are different. They have a natural resistance to their surroundings and a corrupt society brings out the best in them. Which was Noah?
Rashi brings a dispute from the Talmud relating to Noah. Was Noah an objectively righteous man, or was he righteous only relative to his environment? The very first verse in the Torah portion this week introduces Noah to us: “These are the offspring of Noah, Noah was a righteous man, perfect in his generation.”
We could deduce from this that Noah was righteous despite the fact that he lived through a corrupt era. Imagine how righteous he would be if only his generation was more supportive of his lifestyle! This is the approach of Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish, taking the verse as exceptional praise toward Noah. Yet, Rabbi Yochanan disagrees and deduces quite the opposite message from the verse. Only in his generation was Noah considered righteous. Had Noah lived in the generation of Abraham, he would have been nothing exceptional.
Now, what right does Rabbi Yochanan have to criticize Noah? Why should we assume the Torah is giving a backhanded compliment to Noah when everything else indicates that he was simply righteous – with no strings attached?
R’ Yosef Yoisel Horowitz, the Alter of Novardok, explains that indeed the corrupt society prompted Noah to resist and maintain a standard of goodness and integrity. It was precisely the character of Noah to combat the evil of his generation. In Abraham’s generation he would not have stood out as particularly righteous, not because his degree of righteousness would have paled in comparison, but because he wouldn’t have felt prompted to resist! This is the intent of R’ Yochanan. Noah wouldn’t have made the effort in Abraham’s era to be the rock of integrity that he was in his own. This reading of the verse indicates that it was his generation that brought out the best in Noah.
Noah was the sort of person, in Rabbi Yochanan’s view, who might have been a non-conformist, driven to be good simply because it was different. This would be an unusual application of human contrariness. There is generally no resistance to evil, not the contrary driven resistance. Nevertheless, Noah channeled his resistance to assist him in remaining immune to the evils around him. From a desire to remain loyal to the wishes of G-d Noah employed every tool available to assist him in this endeavor. “In a place where there is no man,” states the Mishnah in Avot, “go and be a man.” Noah was this man. Had there been others who stood against the rising floods of evil Noah may not have felt compelled to stand up, but there was no one else. For this he is lauded, even as the Torah hints that his resistance stemmed from “In his generation.”
Sometimes the worst of circumstances brings out the best in people.