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Parshat Noach deals with two great upheavals in human history: the great deluge and the great dispersion. Our Parsha begins with the flood and ends with the dispersion of mankind.
"These are the generations of Noach - Noach was a righteous man, perfect in his generation; Noach walked with G-d." (B'rayshit 6:9)
The genealogy of mankind begins with Adam and Chava (Eve). Over the next ten generations civilization became corrupt and was no longer worthy of existence. Then, Noach (who was not without blemish) set himself apart by seeking repentance for the evil that he had done, thereby finding favor in Hashem's eyes. This act of repentance made him and his family worthy of being saved from the impending destructive waters.
Noach's repentance was no small achievement, he was the only person the Torah ever called a "righteous man." Yet, while all of mankind is referred to as B'nai Noach (descendants of Noah), no single nation was ever named after him.
Rashi (an acronym for Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, France, 1040 - 1105) teaches us that Noach's righteousness was questioned by the Rabbis. Commenting on the word "B'dorotav" (in his generation) Rashi quotes the Talmud in Sanhedrin 109:
"There are those among the Rabbis who expound on [this word] in praise [of Noach] - as if to say: had he lived in a generation of righteous people he would have been even more righteous. And there are those who explain it as a term of denigration as if to say: he was righteous according to his generation's [standards], had he lived in the generation of Avraham, he would have been insignificant."
This commentary by Rashi is confusing. What difference does it make what generation Noach might have lived in? The fact is, while Noach lived in a generation that was totally corrupt, Hashem considered him "a righteous man."
Also, why compare him to Avraham? Were there no other righteous men (such as, Enosh, Methusela, or even his own son Shem), with whom to compare him?
In order to answer these questions, let us look at the genealogy. Noach lived ten generations after Adam (Adam, Seth, Enosh, Kenan, Mahalalel, Jared, Enoch, Methuselah, Lamech and Noach); and Avraham lived ten generations after Noach (Shem, Aparchshad, Shelah, Eber, Peleg, Re'u, Serug, Nahor, Terah and Avraham). Both Noach and Avraham appear in the Torah just prior to the world being destroyed or drastically altered. And both men entered into a covenant that was capable of leading to world salvation.
Our tradition teaches us that it took 120 years for Noach to build the Ark, on dry land with no way to get it to water. While he did so, he was an object of scorn in his community. Noach spent a lifetime building an Ark and when asked what he was doing, he answered that an impending flood would destroy all who did not repent. Tragically, no one listened, and after 120 years, there was no one who stood by Noach and his family or entered into the Ark.
Avraham, also born into a corrupt world, was a lone believer in G-d. Humanity was united into one nation under the wicked leadership of King Nimrod. That generation wanted to raise a tower to the heavens so that they could wage war on Hashem. Avraham alone stood up against Nimrod and refused to participate in this sacrilegious act, and in the process hundreds of thousands of people converted to the teachings and lifestyle of Avraham.
I once heard a "Vort" from Rabbi Mendel Blochman, a good friend presently teaching in Yeshivat Keren B'Yavneh, in Israel. He taught me David Hamelech's (King David) definition of "a righteous man." Remember our Parsha begins with the words Noach was a righteous man. David Hamelech concludes his "Psalm for the Sabbath Day" (Psalm 92) with the words: "The righteous will flourish like a date palm, like a cedar in the Lebanon he will grow."
David Hamelech compares "the righteous" to both a date palm and a cedar tree. Both are tall, strong trees, but there is a major difference: only the a date palm produces fruit. Righteousness also has these attributes, tremendous strength, enough strength to withstand the onslaught of a whole generation of people who ridicule and scorn you for your beliefs. But a more significant part of the definition focuses on the ability to bear fruit.
Noach, unfortunately, couldn't produce anyone willing to take on the world. Yes, he did have a son, Shem, and a great-great-grandson Eber who together would found the first Yeshivah (school for Divine Studies), but they were not granted any special status for their efforts. Avraham was CHOSEN to become the father of all nations, and the father of a particular nation that would have his ability to influence others towards the ways of Hashem.
Yes, Noach, was recognized as righteous in his generation, for he alone represented Hashem's demand for recognition. But the tragedy was that Noach didn't change anybody. His entire world was destroyed.
Avraham, living in similar times, with similar ordeals, passed the tests of endurance not only by surviving, but also by changing those around him. His name and his resistance to the majority has literally changed mankind. Judaism, Christianity and Islam owe their existence to Avraham's fruitfulness. He was an Ivri - Hebrew (literally one who crossed over - usually attributed to Avraham's crossing the Tigris and Euphrates) who crossed the line of peer pressure in order to became the supreme influencer. He was the first demonstrator, the first objector, he was the first Jew.
No, Avraham was not referred to as a righteous man, instead he was referred to by Hashem as "Ahuvi" - My beloved (Isaiah 41:8 and II Chron. 20:7).