Thursday, November 6, 2008

A last look at Noah

The great commentator Rashi makes a comment about the story of Noah which never made sense to me until our Torah study this past Shabbat. The Torah isn't so clear about what the great sin of the world was - what did the people of Noah's generation do to deserve being wiped out? In explaining a couple of the words that the text uses, Rashi suggests that the three sins were theft, idolatry and sexual immorality.

Doesn't something seem disproportionate here? Certainly, those things are bad, but when I hear that an entire generation receives a death-sentence, I expect to see some more serious crimes - death, rape and the like. Why are these the crimes, according to Rashi.

What we discovered together in Torah study was that, to unlock that mystery, you have to look earlier in Rashi's commentary. When describing Noah, the Torah says that he was "righteous in his generation." Why, Rashi asks, do we need to say "in his generation?" Perhaps, he says, it is to teach us that Noah was only righteous when compared to others around him - he was being graded on the curve. Or, perhaps it means that, even surrounded by sinners, Noah managed to stay good. Imagine how much better he could have been, had he lived in a virtuous generation!

So, was Noah only good compared to the shleppers around him, or was he a truly good person, brought down a bit by a bad neighborhood? It's not clear - but it's also not the most important question. The real question is: what happens if we ask that question about ourselves?

Look at Rashi's list of sins - theft, sexual immorality, and idolatry. Would anyone argue that these sins aren't around, in abundance, in our own day and age? Not to be too fire-and-brimstone about it, but aren't we, according to Rashi, living in an age not unlike Noah's? And, if so, if we think of ourselves as good people, then don't we have to ask the question: are we really good, or are we just good in comparison? Could we be proud of who we are, if we aren't graded on the curve?

The important thing is not to answer the question - not to get defensive, or depressed, or egotistical. Rather, the idea is to get humble. To acknowledge that it's not clear, to any of us, how good we "really" are. That, even the most righteous among us have to admit that, were we to be compared to a true tzaddik - a truly righteous person - we might not stack up so well. Most of us are good people, and of that we should be proud. But, that pride should be tempered by knowing that, in all probability, we still have plenty of potential that we leave unfufilled.

No comments: