This weeks parsha begins by describing how Noach was a righteous man, who was perfect, in his generation. Rashi famously quotes the debate amongst the rabbis as to whether or not this is a compliment for Noach, or a criticism. Perhaps he was only righteous in comparison with the other lowly people of his generation, but if he would have been in the generation of Avraham, he wouldn’t have been anything special. Or, perhaps, he was truly righteous, in every sense of the word. Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe explained this debate by saying that people can reach greater spiritual levels due to a number of circumstances. Sometimes they might grow because they are so disgusted with the morally corrupt society around them, that they swim against the tide, and act in an upright manner. Perhaps, suggests Rav Wolbe, according to the opinion that our verse is meant to imply that Noach was not truly righteous, the idea is that if such a person lived in a righteous generation he would have lacked the impetus for growth. On the other hand, perhaps if such people were able to withstand the enormous pressures thrown at them by society, then obviously these people would thrive if they lived in a righteous generation, and reach even higher levels of greatness.
A few verses later, the Torah also describes in this week’s parsha that “G-d saw the earth and behold it was corrupted, for all flesh had corrupted its way upon the earth.” Rashi quotes a midrash which describes how “all flesh” even refers to animals who began acting immorally with other animals of other species. Rav Pam quotes the Beis Halevi who asks how it is even possible for animals, with no free will, to act in a “corrupt” way? He answers that the midrash that Rashi quotes teaches that when humanity devolves to the lowest possible levels of wickedness, the immorality poisons the surrounding atmosphere to the extent that it even affects the animals. The immorality affected the entire world.
With this idea in mind, it is even more remarkable how Noach is described as a righteous man, perfect in his generation. I would argue that it truly doesn’t matter whether or not Noach would have been just as righteous in Avraham’s generation. What matters, and what we should focus on, was that he was able to remain righteous in his generation.
In a very depressing week, reading the news, and seeing on social media how many people have suffered due to horrific acts of cruelty and immorality, perhaps this idea can offer us a glimmer of hope and inspiration. Rabbi Wolbe, who passed away in 2005 described his own generation as “a morally corrupt generation that has overstepped all boundaries of decency.” It is frightening to think how Rav Wolbe might describe the state of affairs in 2017. It is clear that we live in a generation where immorality is rampant. At times, as we read the news, it feels utterly helpless. But then, we remember that we too, can be like Noach. We can be perfectly righteous, despite the morally bankrupt environment we live in.
I recall an old saying: “At first when I was young, I wanted to change the world. But then, I realized it would be too hard to change the world, so I resolved to change my nation. After realizing that too, was too difficult, I decided to change my town. But that too was impossible. So as I became older, I realized that the only thing I can change is myself.” I can, and will make a cognitive decision to remain perfectly righteous in this generation. Thankfully we are blessed with a perfect, timeless instruction manual for living in a moral and upright fashion: our holy Torah. Our Torah, which insists that we guard our eyes from even gazing inappropriately, ensuring that we would not G-d forbid objectify members of the opposite gender. Our Torah, which demands that man cherish, and honor his wife, treating her with more respect than he would afford himself. It is times like now, more than ever, that we need its eternal guidance.