Noah teaches us: Strive to be better

This week’s Torah portion, Noach, starts out with an interesting description of Noah: “Noah was a righteous man; he was blameless in his age.” Is this simply a beautiful example of biblical poetry, a couplet in which the same thought is expressed in two different ways?
Or is this description of Noah hinting at a qualification to his character? Is it a hint that Noah is only righteous when compared to the evil generation of humanity among whom he lives? But if we were to compare Noah to, say, Abraham, then we wouldn’t think Noah was all that special? Or perhaps the fact that Noah — imperfect as he was — remained righteous despite being surrounded by temptations, which made Noah even greater than Abraham? It is a wonderful debate well worth reading about further in the commentary.
Personally, I like to think of comparing Noah to the rest of his generation not as a slam against Noah’s character, but as an inspiration to us all. Noah didn’t have to compare himself to Abraham; he compared himself to those around him. Neither do we have to measure ourselves against some unattainable moral exemplar like Abraham. It would be demoralizing if we did because we could never be as great as Abraham. But, if we simply do what we can to make the world better, then we too can be righteous in our age.
It is as Rabbi Tarfon said in Pirkei Avot 2:16: “Lo alecha ham’lacha ligmor v’lo ata ben chorin l’bateil mimena. You are not responsible for finishing the work, but neither are you free to leave off from it.” That is, when we are faced with what seems to be an overwhelming task, all that’s expected is that we do what we can. And there is so much that needs work in this world today that it can feel overwhelming, as if the work will never be completed. But we’re not the ones who have to complete the work; we just have to do what we can.
There are thousands, millions, of people affected by hurricanes and floods and wildfires and earthquakes. There are so many people affected by so many natural disasters that I couldn’t possibly help them all. But I don’t have to because I just have to give of the resources that I can.
I don’t have to feed every hungry person in Texas, but I have to do my share in keeping the food pantries stocked. I don’t have to provide housing for every homeless person in Texas, but I do have to do my part in supporting homeless shelters. I don’t have to be a doctor myself, even if it would have made my mother proud, to heal the people who are ill, but I do have to support the clinics that provide healing to the needy.
We don’t have to be as great as Abraham. Rather, we should try to be like Noah, striving to be better than those around us. For if we all did, if we all tried to be better than each other, then we would create a virtuous circle. We would continuously improve the world around us, as we inspire each other to even greater heights. And when we all give what we can of ourselves and our resources, then when we put it all together, we will see the work completed.
Rabbi Ben Sternman is the spiritual leader of Congregation Adat Chaverim in Plano.

Leave a Reply