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Dvar Torah/Parashat Noach Thread – October 23, 2020

This is the weekly Dvar Torah thread, feel free to share your divrei Torah here.

This week’s official Dvar Torah is:

Noah was a righteous man, faultless in his generation. Noah walked with God. (Genesis 6:9)

These are the first descriptors we get of Noah, in the parashah which bears his name. But what does it mean to be “blameless in his generation”? According to some commentators, Noah was not especially righteous, but, in comparison to his peers, who were so wicked as to merit being wiped off the earth, even an average degree of righteousness was remarkable. Others read the verse as meaning that Noah was righteous, not just relative to the generation of the Flood, but in absolute terms. Had he lived in a later generation, alongside Abraham or Moses, he would have been counted among the most righteous too. But is being righteous relative to one’s peers enough? Certainly it is enough to be the least righteous of a remarkably righteous generation (like the joke goes, “what do you call the person who graduates last in their medical school class? A doctor.”), but does the reverse hold true. I would say it does.

In the second chapter of Pirkei Avot, Rabban Gamliel admonishes us “in a place where there are no men, strive to be a man”. This means that even, perhaps especially, when nobody else is acting properly, one should work to be meritorious. We are called to be righteous and faultless (or as faultless as we can be) in our generations. The world around us may be filled with people who fall short of excellence, and we may likewise not be the most excellent. That does not mean that we cannot be the best of a less than stellar lot. And if those around us are meritorious sorts, then it is all the more praiseworthy to strive to be the best among them.

But it is not greatness or glory that are the mark of Noah’s righteousness. It is his wholeheartedness and his simple honesty. The word used in the text is tamim, from the same root as the descriptor used in the Passover hagaddah for the simple child. According to tradition, the crime of the generation wiped out by the flood was dishonesty and cruelty with one another. It is Noah’s difference from the corrupt society around him that gets him chosen to be the one to re-establish humanity. While we are not likely to face an extinction-level world flood (though in 2020, anything is seeming possible), we can still learn from Noah’s example and strive to be worthy of being asked to build an ark.

In this time of tension, we should look at things not just through the lens of “what does it do for me?” but rather “how can I help my neighbors and friends to get through this healthily and safely?” Wear a mask, share with those around you (where possible, and within the limits of responsible behavior), bake cookies for your neighbors. Righteousness is not defined by how precisely you said your prayers, by how many pages of Gemara you learned, or any other measure of dedication to acts between us and our Creator. God was here before, and God will be here after. For now, let’s focus on bettering our relations between people and their neighbors. There is a story told of a man who came to the Lubavitcher Rebbe and asked him if it was true that it is a good luck charm for a peaceful and happy marriage to fold one’s tallit right away after Havdalah on Saturday night. The Rebbe told him that it’s possible that folding his tallit might bring some sort of good luck, but what will surely be a better guarantor of a happy marriage would be to fold up his sleeves and helping his wife with the dishes, which are bound to have piled up over the course of Shabbat. Similarly, we should seek to bring peace and harmony to the world through acts of person-to-person righteousness.

This D’var Torah is also available on my blog: D’var Torah in a Minute

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