Good and the Potential to do better

October 22, 2020

How Noah is almost a good example for us

They call it a “honeymoon” phase when life seems to go very smoothly after a strong start. Then, challenges begin to appear and then abruptly, the phase is over. This is kind of what the world experiences after Creation. A few generations after Cain and Abel, we discover that the world quickly descends into chaos. At the very end of last week’s portion, we learn (Genesis 6:5):

וַיַּ֣רְא ה’ כִּ֥י רַבָּ֛ה רָעַ֥ת הָאָדָ֖ם בָּאָ֑רֶץ וְכָל־יֵ֙צֶר֙ מַחְשְׁבֹ֣ת לִבּ֔וֹ רַ֥ק רַ֖ע כָּל־הַיּֽוֹם׃

The LORD saw how great was humanity’s evil on earth, and how every plan devised by their mind was nothing but evil all the time.

This is a rough description of humanity.

We did good for a while, but then we lost our way. In the verse it references the idea of our יצר, yetzer, our inclination. In the Tradition, we’re told that we have both an evil inclination and a good inclination. Each encouraging us to act, whispering to us to make good choices and bad.

Here we learn, our inclination, our plans and desires, as humans, were full of evil. However, for the rabbis, this is profoundly uncomfortable. How can humanity be punished for evil they hadn’t yet done? What about free will?

Fascinatingly, Sforno, an Italian rabbi from the early 1500s, wrote by way of an answer:

Great was humanity’s evil – this is a reference to the past.
Every plan by their mind – a reference to the future.

It wasn’t just that we had done evil, but that we also had evil planned. It is about the idea of potential. What could we do, what we might do, what we should do.

In our portion, Noah is introduced to us in the first line:

אֵ֚לֶּה תּוֹלְדֹ֣ת נֹ֔חַ נֹ֗חַ אִ֥ישׁ צַדִּ֛יק תָּמִ֥ים הָיָ֖ה בְּדֹֽרֹתָ֑יו אֶת־הָֽאֱלֹהִ֖ים הִֽתְהַלֶּךְ־נֹֽחַ׃

This is the line of Noah. Noah was a righteous man; he was innocent in his generation; Noah walked with God.

The crux of this description, the one that the rabbis explore is why he is described as a righteous person but with the phrase “in his generation.”

In the Talmud, we’re taught:

With regard to the verse: “These are the generations of Noah; Noah was a righteous man, and wholehearted in his generations” (Genesis 6:9), Rabbi Yoḥanan says: Relative to the other people of his generation he was righteous and wholehearted, but not relative to those of other generations. And Reish Lakish says: In his generation he was righteous and wholehearted despite being surrounded by bad influences; all the more so would he have been considered righteous and wholehearted in other generations.

Meaning, he was a good person, but only relative to those around him. So he was good, not great. It is important to know that in the Tradition, our “heroes” are not perfect. They make mistakes, do the wrong thing, and altogether very human. Noah is no exception.

What Reish Lakish adds, I think, is the most essential part. He was good DESPITE who was around him. This is key.

This is the same as the classic, “if everyone jumped off of a bridge,” question that parents always ask their children on television. How do you act when everyone around you is acting in a particular way? Do you stand firm? Capitulate to the zeitgeist?

Not only is this relevant to the world we’re currently living through, the pandemic, divisive politics, and climate change, but it isn’t just about the big things. It is about how we act every day.

In the Kedushat Levi, authored by Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, he writes:

There are two types of righteous people, [both of whom] serve the Creator. The first category of tzaddik does so with enthusiasm and profound devotion, but does so as an individual only, not endeavoring to draw other people nearer to their Creator.

There is a second category of tzaddik, righteous person, who not only serves the Creator himself, but who also is instrumental in leading sinners back to their Creator.

Namely, for our purposes, there are those who do the right thing and focus on their own actions alone, and there are those who try and encourage others to do the right thing too.

And this is what I think about potential.

Both of these folks are doing good, neither of them are doing evil things. And yet, internally, we know that the potential impact of their goodness is not the same.

We don’t live alone with a narrow accounting of our actions but live in a network of human beings who influence and are influenced. Each and every interaction we have in the world ripples out to affect others.

And this, to me is one of the core lessons of the story of Noah, of this righteous in his generation individual. He is, reasonably, an impressive person to withstand the negative influences of those around him. As we see from the world around us, that’s hard to do.

At the same time, we can hope that what God sees in him is the potential to do more. He doesn’t really try and improve the world around him, he escapes from it. He doesn’t really encourage others to do better, he hides in the ark. But, what the potential of what he might do, the possibility of his goodness is what protects him.

We can be like Noah, good, staying in our lane, or we can lean into the potential to be better. To encourage others to be better than we are today.

We can be good on our own, but it isn’t actually enough. We have to bring others along with us.

Thank you for reading! In my With Torah and Love newsletter, I write about Torah, Talmud, self-awareness, and becoming our best selves as students of life and Judaism.

About the Author

Rabbi Jeremy Markiz is a teacher and consultant. He teaches the Torah rooted in personal growth, kindness, intentionality, and bettering the world. He writes the With Torah and Love newsletter.

He helps clergy, congregations, and Jewish organizations grow and communicate clearly in the digital world, develop effective strategies, and solve problems with his consulting firm, Next Level Rabbinics.