Rabbi Yaakov Haber
Ish Ha'Adama vs. Ish Elokim: Personal Growth and Chessed
Many commentators have contrasted Noach's introverted righteousness focusing on personal religious growth, not praying for the salvation of his generation, and not rebuking them for their wrongdoing with Avraham's extroverted righteousness convincing others of the truth of monotheism and of an ethical lifestyle, praying for the salvation of even the wicked S'dom and its sister cities, and rebuking Avimelech and others for their wrongdoing with the goal of changing them for the better (see The Spiritual Legacy of Noah and Avraham by Rav Michael Rosensweig for a fascinating exposition of the contrast between these two individuals.)
B'raishit Rabba (36:3) further contrasts Noach with Moshe. Noach enters history's stage being described as "Ish Tzaddik" (Noach 6:9), a righteous man, the appellation by which he is crowned as he is chosen to be the sole builder of a new, better world. He exits as an "Ish Ha'Adama" (9:20), a man of the earth, or an earthy man, the title by which he is called before he falls into a drunken stupor after planting a vineyard and producing wine. Moshe, on the other hand, toward the beginning of his life is referred to as "Ish Mitzri" (Sh'mos 2:19) and exits before granting his final blessing to K'lal Yisrael as an "Ish Elokim" (V'Zos HaBracha 33:1), a man of G-d.
Meshech Chochma provides an insightful exposition of this Midrash. One would have expected Noach's emphasis on religious self-growth to lead to sustained righteousness throughout his life. Instead, the opposite occurred. One would have expected Moshe's constant involvement with others -- his seeking out the plight of his brethren in Egypt, his risking his life to save a fellow Jew, his saving the daughters of Yisro and their flock of sheep from the shepherds who chased them away from the well, his constant prayer for the salvation of K'lal Yisrael even to the point of his willingness to give up his own life rather than witness the destruction of his beloved nation -- to hamper his religious growth. Instead, he develops as the highest level prophet possible soaring above those who preceded and succeeded him. Sustained religious growth is not solely due to one's effort at self-perfection. It is granted as a gift from Hashem largely in response to and in proportion with one's involvement with the needs of others, the level being reached far transcending that which would have been possible by the investment in time and effort of the individual himself. This remains a paradox of religious devotion. Taking away time from self contemplation, study and efforts at perfection to help others often leads to greater levels of piety than would have ordinarily been possible. Not surprisingly, Avraham Avinu establishes the paradigm of "G'dola hachnassas 'orchim mei'hakbalas p'nei ha'Sh'china," "Welcoming guests is greater than greeting the Divine Presence."
Chasam Sofer expresses a similar notion in his analysis of the passage introducing Hashem's telling Avraham about the imminent destruction of S'dom. "HaM'chase 'Ani mei'Avraham 'asher 'ani 'oseh. V'Avraham hoyo yihye l'goy gadol.... 'asher y'tzave es banav v'es beiso acharav ... la'asos t'zdaka umishpat..." "Shall I hide from Avraham that which I am about to do. And Avraham will become a great nation ... he will instruct his children and household concerning the ways of charity and justice" (VaYeira 18:17-18). The p'sukim imply that there would have been a reason to withhold this prophecy from Avraham, but Hashem did not since Avraham would inform his children of the ways of charity and justice. The Chasam Sofer suggests that since Avraham Avinu was so involved in outreach to others, he did not have the time normally necessary to prepare himself spiritually for the reception of prophecy. Nonetheless, since he acted for the sake of Heaven in giving to others, Hashem granted him the prophecy as a gift.
It has been suggested that for a similar reason, Moshe is referred to as "Ish Elokim" precisely at the end of his life before he blessed the B'nei Yisrael. Moshe was denied entry into the Holy Land he desired to enter his whole life ultimately because of the complaints of the Jewish People at Mei M'riva which led to his transgression for which his punishment was to die in the desert. Yet, Moshe, rather than holding a grudge against his nation, and rebuking them severely at the end of his life, blaming them for his misery, blesses them! This supreme act of chessed, focusing on K'lal Yisrael's future happiness and not his own sorrow earns him the title of Ish Elokim.
On a cautionary note, engaging immediately in reaching out to others before significantly developing oneself spiritually can often lead to not having enough to give or even to spiritual disappointment and disillusionment. The balance between personal religious growth and helping others is a complex one and depends on myriad factors. Nevertheless, the emphasis on giving of our time, knowledge and sympathies to others at the right time and place, as demonstrated by our great leaders, should serve as an inspiring example for all of us to follow.