Rabbi Reuven Mann
This week’s parsha, Noach, contains the most astounding narrative in the Torah, that of G-d’s destruction of the world He had created. In Bereishit, the Torah recounts, after every unit of creation, that “G-d saw that it was good.” G-d is a “perfect” creator who designed the world, as we say in the Kaddish, “according to His will.” It was clearly His intention that the universe He established should endure. What could be the motive for its termination?
We can derive from this parsha the tremendous influence that man exerts over the scheme of things. He can even determine if the world will continue or cease to exist. The Rambam, in Hilchot Teshuvah, teaches that, on Rosh Hashanah, Hashem judges not only individuals and nations, but the entire world as well. If the evil of the world, in a manner of calculating known only to Hashem, is greater than the good, then the planet is liable to extinction. In this universal reckoning, the deeds of every individual are taken into account. Accordingly, says the Rambam, each person should feel a sense of responsibility, not just for himself, but for the wellbeing of the world he inhabits.
The verse states that “G-d saw that the evil of man was great in the earth, and every imagination of his heart was only evil all the time.” The 13 attributes of Hashem that we recite in our selichot prayers are all about the infinite mercy of G-d and His great “capacity” for forgiving even the worst sinners. G-d is slow to anger, long-suffering, and desires that the sinner not die, but repent and live. Yet we learn from parshat Noach that there is a limit to the amount of sinfulness that Hashem will tolerate in His world. When it reaches the point where there is no daylight, and man is capable only of base intentions at all times, then hope is lost, and the world has no purpose.
However, even at a time when the entire world was steeped in unceasing corruption, G-d’s infinite mercy did manifest itself. The entire reason for the continued existence of humanity is contained in this simple verse: “And Noach found favor in the eyes of Hashem.” All it took was the presence of one righteous man and his family for Hashem to rescind the decree of total annihilation.
It is vital to inquire, what was so unique about Noach that made him fit to be the lone survivor and new progenitor of the human race? True, he stood out because of his righteousness, but is that the whole story? The verse states, “...Noach was a righteous man, perfect in his generations. With G-d did Noach walk.” We must ask, what is the meaning of “perfect in his generations”? Much Midrashic interpretation has been expended on this statement. In its plain sense, I believe it conveys the quality within Noach that caused him to find favor with Hashem. Most people are affected by the moral climate of their times and cannot resist the force of social pressure. They need to find favor with society, and thus go along with the prevailing morality. Man is a social animal, lacking the ability to think and act for himself.
Noach was different. He stood apart from the rest. The fact that “everyone is doing it” did not become the criterion for his ethical code. Rather, he sought out the truth and the way of life that was right in the sight of Hashem. “With Hashem did Noach walk,” following the path the Creator had designated for man and eschewing the evil ways that would bring him the approval of his peers.
His ability to resist the societal pressure of immoral behavior and to stand alone in his fealty to Hashem is what caused him to find Divine favor. May we have the strength and courage to stand apart from contemporary society and adhere to the eternal values of Torah, no matter how unpopular they become.