Noach is one of the most interesting, complex characters in the entire Torah. The end of Parshas Bereishis notes that Hashem was disheartened with the behavior of the people whom He had created, yet the final verse of the Parsha states that Noach, however, found favor in the eyes of Hashem. The next verse, the opening line of our Parsha, goes even further than that. “These are the generations of Noach, Noach was a righteous man he was perfect in his generations; Noach walked with God.” In addition to the praise previously offered, we see here that Noach seems to be regarded in very high esteem. If you look at the way he is described here, you won’t find many other individuals in the entire Torah who are levied with such praise. Furthermore, he’s given such accolades without even delineating what it was that classified him as a righteous and perfect person!
Yet, at the end of the parsha we see a different individual. The prior Noach is now drunk, naked, embarrassed, casting curses and relegated to an Ish HaAdama, a man of the soil. Rashi tells us even before we read this section of the Parsha that Noach was indeed righteous, but had he been alive in the time of Avraham Avinu, he wouldn’t have been considered important at all. After all, the verse says Noach walked with God. Rashi cites the Medrash Tanchuma that Noach relied on God to keep him on the path of tzidkus, while Avraham did not require this measure and was mechazek himself and ascended to righteousness on his own.
So which one is it? Righteous or not righteous?
There is a great amount to unpack in reference to these statements of Rashi. These aren’t the mere musings of a random commentary. The words of Rashi carry significant weight. Is it really accurate to state that Noach was only righteous in his time? Even if it is, so what? What’s so nefarious in stating that Noach was only righteous in his generation and had he lived in the time of Avraham he wouldn’t have been regarded so loftily? If we, in 2017/5778 lived in the time of Avraham Avinu, would we have been considered tzaddikim? What indicators are there that the individuals we reflect upon with reverence today would be a blip on the righteousness radar in the times of Abraham? Avraham pulled himself up by his bootstraps from the throes of idolatry and became a tzaddik. Noach relied on Hashem to support him. Who do we rely on today? We are living in an unparalleled period with more resources and access to scholars than ever before to help us on our journey to righteousness, certainly greater than those available to Noach in his generation, Avraham’s generation, and many that followed. Where exactly does that leave us?
Truth be told, it Rashi’s comment doesn’t bother me. Noach can still be a truly righteous person while also paling in comparison to Avraham. This idea can be applied in relation to sports players of different eras. There are players in every sport who are talented and great at what they do. However, no matter when they play their game, there will always be players before or after them who will have been better. Player X may be the best player in their league this year, but had they been playing in the time period of player Y, their athletic abilities may not have shone as brightly. They may have been a mediocre player on a good team, while a star player on an abysmal one. If one watches a sporting event with a old-time fan, they’ll tell you stories of the players they followed decades ago with great detail. Many times, one might be regaled with tales of how these players today have changed their sport, for better or for worse. This type of comparison talk has existed for centuries, from the time of Noach to this very day.
Are we to remember Noach as righteous for listening to God’s commandments in a time that was dominated by those who did not, or should Noach be remembered for all time as a drunkard who sought to jinx his own descendants? To me, the overwhelmingly obvious answer is the former. One need not be the most righteous person in the history of the world to be considered among the tzaddikim. Noach is no exception.