This week’s Parsha, Noach, is about as chock full of parables, lessons and historical context as any in the Torah—so much so, in fact, that it’s almost difficult to select a focus for a single d’var torah. You could randomly place a finger on the text and find something worth an entire course of study. You have the story of the flood and the world’s renewal; the Noahide laws; Noah’s invention (!) of wine, and his later foray into intentional drunkenness; the story of Nimrod; the Tower of Babel… the list goes on and on. To me, the most interesting phrase of the entire section is in the very first sentence:
נֹ֗חַ אִ֥ישׁ צַדִּ֛יק תָּמִ֥ים הָיָ֖ה בְּדֹֽרֹתָ֑יו
Noah, the Torah tells us, was a “righteous man, blameless in his generation.” The backdrop is clear, of course: yetzer hara (the inclination to do evil) has plagued mankind since the days of Adam and Eve, and in Noah’s era God determines to wipe humanity out and start again. Noah, meanwhile, “walks with God,” and is given the burden of being the post-delugic Adam.
But one might rightly ask: if Noah was worthy of this distinction, why include any qualifier? Why refer to him as righteous and blameless, but only in his generation? Is the Torah damning Noah with faint praise, by saying, “he was pretty good…for his time?” And are we, therefore, to understand that righteousness is to be measured in relative terms? (That seems unlikely, insofar as it is at least somewhat at odds with what would later become a mitzvah-centric culture.) Or are we to understand that there is a distinction to be made, as some commentators have claimed, between being “righteous” (in the eyes of God) and “blameless” (in the eyes of men)?
For me, a compelling way of understanding the distinction is this: Noah was blameless in his generation, in that he was without sin, but could not be considered righteous because he did not speak out against the evil of his contemporaries. That would be consistent with the Torah’s later injunctions not to stand idly by, and our obligation to reprove our kin when they do wrong. From this, we might conclude that it is not enough to live a righteous life—we are also obliged to help others do so as well.