Rabbi Mordechai Willig
Rabbi Mordechai Willig

Learning from Noach

I

"Noach was a righteous man (tzadik), he was perfect (tamim) in his generations" (Breishis 6:9). Noach's deeds are described here as "righteous", while his "ways", referring to his character, as the Ibn Ezra explains, "tamim b'libo", are described as "perfect" (Avodah Zara, 6a).

The Meshech Chochma explains that Noach lived in two generations, one before the flood and one after the flood. Before the flood Noach was righteous since he did not steal like all the others (Rashi 6:11 and Avodah Zara ibid.), and did not engage in sexual immorality like all flesh (6:11, Rashi). After the flood, everyone refrained from sexual immorality (see Rashi 9:19) and theft, so Noach was not a unique tzadik in that generation.

Tamim means one who is humble and of low spirit ("sh'fal ruach", Rashi Avodah Zara ibid.). Before the flood, when everyone ridiculed Noach, his humility was insignificant. After the flood, when he alone survived, Hashem spoke to him and saved him, and he fed the entire world (see Rashi 7:23), Noach still did not become haughty and then his humility was significant. Noach was therefore called a tzadik in the generation before the flood, since his righteous deeds were unique and noteworthy, while after the flood he was called tamim, since his ways, i.e. his humility despite his historic accomplishments, were unique and noteworthy. Moreover, his humility stood in stark contrast to the dor haflaga whose haughtiness led them to attempt to wage war with Hashem (Rashi 11:1, Rav Y. Cooperman footnote 12 to Meshech Chochma).

"Vayisha'er ach Noach - only Noach survived" (7:23). Rashi interprets "ach" to indicate a minimization, specifically it minimizes Noach's health because he was injured by the animals he fed. An alternative explanation minimizes Noach himself, i.e. he remained "only Noach", the same humble person, despite his unique accomplishments.

Hashem recalled Noach with words of salvation and mercy ("b'dvar yeshua v'rachamim" - Musaf Rosh Hashana, Zichronos). The same phrase is found in the tefillah of "Ya'ale v'yavo": "b'dvar yeshua v'rachamim...v'racheim aleinu v'hoshi'einu - in the matter of salvation and mercy, have mercy on us and save us." Noach, in his humility, did not ask to be saved by his merits, but pleaded for salvation based on mercy. We, too, beseech Hashem for salvation based on mercy, not on our merits, in Ya'ale v'yavo (R.Y.D. Schlesinger).

II

Living in our generation presents a dual challenge. Sexual immorality is approaching pre-flood proportions. Promiscuity is the norm on university campuses, and tens of millions of Americans pursue adultery on the internet, as was recently discovered. Too many otherwise Orthodox Jews engage in these behaviors as well. And even worse, they do so openly and expect, and even receive, honor in their communities and shuls.

Similar openness and official acceptance is granted to homosexual behavior as well. Noachides did not write marriage contacts for two males (Chulin 92b). Even though they had male partners, they did not treat the prohibition so lightly as to write marriage contracts (Rashi ibid). Today, gay marriage, which was unthinkable in both antiquity and the recent past, is the law of the land in America. Here, too, otherwise Orthodox Jews engage in these behaviors openly, and expect, and even receive, honor in their communities and shuls.

We must try to be like Noach the tzadik and abstain from all types of sexual immorality. We must not honor those who practice such behaviors openly. As Orthodox Jews, we are required to avoid activities which can lead to immorality, i.e. abizrayhu d'gilui arayos. We therefore must be modest in dress and demeanor, and watch what we say and what we see (Shabbos 33a, Brachos 12b).

Our generation has achieved great technological accomplishments and financial successes. The generation of the flood became haughty because of the bounty that Hashem gave them (Sanhedrin 108a). We dare not repeat their mistake. Rather, we must try to be like Noach the tamim, maintaining humility and a lowly spirit despite our accomplishments and successes.

The generation of the flood was destroyed because of immorality and haughtiness. Our generation faces similar challenges. In the merit of our resisting sinful behavior, rejecting its acceptability, and maintaining humility in the spirit of Noach, may our tefilos, like his, be answered with salvation and mercy.

Postscript

One who separates himself from the community...and does not personalize their troubles...has no share in the Word to Come
- Rambam, Hilchos Teshuva 3:11

Unrelated to the discussion of sexual immorality above, the suffering experienced recently in Israel must be close to all of our hearts and demands that each of us engage in unrelenting introspection and teshuva.

One month ago, on Rosh Hashana, in the Zichronos section of Musaf, we declared: "Regarding states it is declared; which to the sword and which to peace." Unfortunately the state and people of Israel have experienced a month of murders by cruel enemies. Any hubris of a perfect self-defense has been shattered. "If Hashem will not guard the city, the watchman guards in vain" (Tehillim 127:1).

Of course all appropriate security measured must be taken. But we must also, like Noach, cry to Hashem to save us with mercy, on Rosh Hashana, in Ya'ale v'yavo on holidays and Rosh Chodesh, and every day. The heartfelt Tehillim recited worldwide on behalf of our beleaguered brothers and sisters in Eretz Yisrael reflects our utter dependence on Hashem's mercy and reinforces the humility that characterized Noach.

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