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Noah was a righteous (tzadik) man in his generation, Noah walked with G-d (6:9)
Rashi's comment on 'Noah walked with G-d' is not one of unreserved praise for Noah. In quoting the Midrash, he draws an unfavorable contrast with Abraham, who is described in the text as having 'walked before G-d' (24:40). Abraham, who walked before G-d, was able to follow His teachings without His special spiritual support, but Noah, in walking with G-d, depended on it. But in quoting a second opinion in the Midrash, he comments that he was a righteous man despite the company of his generation: how much more so would he have been a great person had he lived at the time of Abraham.
However, this phrase is an unusual one as it is almost unknown for our holy texts to give a direct character description until the time of the Kings of Israel (which in most cases was of the 'he did evil in the eyes of G-d' genre). There is no parallel phrase describing Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, or Joshua. We have no tradition that they were perfect people - although they strove towards perfection. There is no text to describe them as tzadikim - that is reserved for Noah alone.
In explaining why the Torah does not include glowing personal descriptions beyond Noah, Rashi makes a vital point at the end of the Parasha. For the very last letter of the Parasha is the final nun of be-haran. Rashi quotes the Sifri (Ha-azinu 311) which has the tradition (not in our Sifrei Torah) that the final letter is written as a nun hafucha - a nun in reverse, reminiscent of Numbers 10:35-6. He states that this shows that until Abraham's time, G-d's wrath was turned against the world.
It may also be suggested that nun hafucha is a demarcation point. Until then, the Torah is non-specific to humanity at large. It is universalist. Beyond comes the life of Abraham, where the Torah becomes increasingly specific to the Israelite nation. In support, there is a custom amongst some Jewish communities today not to call one's children after anyone mentioned in Torah before the time of Abraham.
Thus Noah could be described as a tzadik because he lived within the seven universal laws of the Torah, which are based on the text of the Parasha (9:1-7) as expounded by the Talmud (Sanhedrin 59a). Even his 'debasing himself' (9:20, translation according to Rashi) by cultivating plants producing intoxicating drink did not transgress the universal basic laws of the Torah.
In contrast, Jewish tradition does consider the notion that the Patriarchs kept the Torah as it was to be revealed to the Israelites at large at Sinai. In any case, they were close to G-d, and high standards of obedience to Him were required; exemplified by the Akeida (22:1-19). The greater the demands, the harder it is to conform.
This leads us to the most important point. The concept of sainthood - the perfect person - is not a Torah ideal. It does not promote spending one's days in isolation in a religious community with self-imposed strictures far from the realities of daily living. On the contrary 'G-d gave the earth to Man' (Psalms 115:16) - to interact with it proactively within the bounds revealed by the Torah. That was precisely the way of the patriarchs and founders of the Israelite nation. And the Torah does not seek to cover up their errors and shortcomings. Rather, it magnifies them. It describes them as great individuals facing enormous challenges with not always the highest degree of success. It shows them as people of human nature with the same temptations as any member of the human race, and how they disciplined them to a higher purpose - sometimes not completely.
That is one of the basic teachings of the personalities of the Torah. Sainthood no, struggle for greatness stage by stage, yes.
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Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.
Parashiot from the First, Second, and Third Series may be viewed on the Shema Yisrael web-site: http://www.shemayisrael.com/parsha/solomon/archives/archives.htm
Also by Jacob Solomon:
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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