The Paths of Peace
Noach had been sentenced to destruction with the rest of mankind, in the Great Flood that was to scourge the earth, but he was ultimately spared by Divine pardon, as we learn from the verse, “Noach found favor in Hashem’s eyes.”
What was the nature of the Divine favor that Noach received? How was this merit great enough to spare his life, even after the Heavenly Courts had sentenced him to death for his sins? How can we hope to win similar favor, that we might also be spared from the hardship and suffering that abound in these difficult times?
The Righteous who are not Good
An enigmatic Gemara divides mankind into four categories: the righteous who are good, the righteous who are not good, the wicked who are evil, and the wicked who are not evil. The Gemara then proceeds to explain that the “righteous who are good” perform their religious duties to Heaven, and also treat other people with kindness and consideration. The “righteous who are not good” perform their religious duties, but are mean to their fellow men. The “wicked who are evil” act poorly towards God and man. The “wicked who are not evil” are irreligious, but they act kindly towards their fellow men.
It is interesting that a person who is mean to others can still be considered righteous in any sense. Our religious obligations towards Hashem also require us to be kind and decent to others. Yom Kippur atones for our sins against Hashem, but it does not atone for our sins against our fellow men, until we ask their forgiveness. When a person is mean to others, then by definition he is not righteous, since his actions are odious to Hashem as well. What then is the meaning of this Gemara?
The Midrash interprets the verse, “And God called the light ‘Day’” as a reference to the deeds of the righteous. “And He called the darkness ‘Night’”, refers to the deeds of the wicked. We would not know which God prefers, had the verse not continued, “And God saw that the light was good.” The Kedushas Levi asks:
How could we have doubted that Hashem prefers the deeds of the righteous over those of the wicked? Is this not obvious? To explain, let us note that the Midrash does not refer to the righteous and the wicked themselves, but to their deeds.
Our Sages exhort us to serve Hashem using our yetzer tov and our yetzer hara together. The yetzer tov promotes love, peace, and the use of kindness and sensitivity to draw Jews close to Hashem. The yetzer hara, on the other hand, kindles anger and hatred. The wicked use these feelings in defiance of Hashem’s will, directing their hatred against those who serve Him. However, the righteous can also use the emotions kindled by the yetzer hara, directing their hatred and anger against those who defy Him, as Rabbeinu Yona explains.
“And God called the light ‘Day’” refers to the deeds of the righteous, who draw others close to Hashem’s service with kind, sensitive words that touch their hearts. “And He called the darkness ‘Night’”. Obviously, Hashem has no desire at all in the wicked themselves. Rather, this refers to the deeds and traits of the wicked when employed by the righteous. Hashem saw that anger and hatred could also be used in His service. He saw that people could be forced into religious observance by sharp arguments, by belligerent debate, and by threats of punishment in this world or the Next.
Since both methods can be employed in Hashem’s service, the Midrash asks a legitimate question. Which does Hashem prefer? He prefers the deeds of the righteous, who inspire others with kindness and respect, as it is written, “Its ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace.”
A person could be pious in his religious observance, but belligerent in nature, and try to use his harsh character traits in Hashem’s service. However, this is not the way of the “righteous who are good.” Hashem wants us to serve Him in a pleasant, kindly way.
For example, when educating our children, and when encouraging our wayward brethren to return to a life of Torah, we must use words of endearment and conciliation, focusing on the good. This was the method espoused by our predecessors, the Chassidic leaders since the time of the Baal Shem Tov. Rebbe Dovid of Lelov zt”l, warned his student, my ancestral grandfather, the Yehudi HaKodesh of Peshischa zt”l, never to rebuke in a demeaning way. The only way to influence people in these hard times is with soft, sweet words that warm the heart and nurture the soul. In this case, and in all others, we must serve Hashem with a pleasant, kindly demeanor, and be “righteous who are good”.
Proper Behavior Precedes Torah
We can now understand how Noach earned special favor in Hashem’s eyes, which granted him pardon while the rest of the world was condemned to destruction. “Noach” means pleasantness. The Zohar states that Noach was “pleasant to those Above and pleasant to those below.” We learn in Pirkei Avos: “If one’s fellows are pleased with him, then Hashem is pleased with him as well.” Since Noach was pleasant to his fellow man below, his deeds were equally pleasing to Hashem Above.
Noach realized that the true way to piety is by being pleasant, friendly, and helpful to others. This is contrary to the misguided opinion that religious perfection is judged mostly by one’s mitzvos bein adam l’Makom (between man and his Creator). In fact, one grows close to Hashem and rises in spirituality primarily by being kind and pleasant towards others, and practicing the mitzvos bein adam l’chaveiro (between man and his fellow). By pleasing and helping those around him, Noach became a “righteous man, perfect in his generation,” whose ways were pleasing to Hashem.
The Noam Elimelech writes that if a person has a good heart, and does favors for others, then even if he is wicked in every other sense, his acts of kindness will eventually draw him back to a life of perfect righteousness. “Only good and kindness shall pursue me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of Hashem for length of days.” Man’s goodness and kindness will pursue him, no matter how far he strays from religious observance, and ultimately draw him back to the house of Hashem.
We can now understand the Gemara’s example of a “wicked person who is not evil.” This is no contradiction in terms. He may be wicked in a religious sense, but he is essentially good, since he has a kind heart and does favors for others. Ultimately, his kind heart will prevail and draw him back to a path of perfect righteousness.
In contrast, the Malbim warns against those who feign heights of spiritual greatness, yet are nasty and selfish. Undoubtedly, their religious zeal is no more than a shallow façade, with no depth or meaning to it. It is unthinkable that a real tzaddik could be cruel to others.
In Tanna D’Vei Eliyahu, we learn that “Derech eretz kadma l’Torah –proper behavior precedes Torah.” R’ Nosson David of Shidlovtza zt”l explains that derech eretz is a hakdama (introduction) to Torah. By reading the introduction to a book, one gets a fair impression of the book’s quality and content. So too, by judging a person’s derech eretz, we get a fair impression of the value of his Torah study and religious observance. The Midrash states:
Noach was pleasant (neicha) to all. He was pleasant to parents and pleasant to children; pleasant to Heaven and pleasant to man on earth; pleasant in this world and pleasant in the World to Come.
Noach’s good-hearted, friendly demeanor was a pleasure to all who knew him. By combining religious dedication with the respectful treatment of others, he brought pleasure to his deceased parents as they watched him from their place in the World to Come. He walked the Torah’s “ways of pleasantness and paths of peace,” as he tried to draw people close to Hashem with respect and consideration. This was his saving grace, which rescued him from the decree that eradicated the rest of mankind.
Tzaddik in Menschlichkeit
My father, the Chelkas Yehoshua zt”l, explained the verse, “Noach was a tzaddik of a man (ish tzaddik),” to mean that he was a tzaddik specifically in the area of menshlichkeit. “Perfect in his generation,” means that he set a perfect example for his own generation, and for all generations to come. Noach was not simply a mensch. He was a “tzaddik in menschlichkeit,” reaching extremely high spiritual levels as a result of his decency and respect for others.
By setting a precedent of menshlichkeit, Noach enabled his descendants to also behave like menschen, even in times like our own: times of thievery and corruption; times of selfishness and exploitation; times when people stab one another with sharp words, and rejoice in the downfall of their peers; times when menschlichkeit is scarcely to be found, and honesty and devotion are all but forgotten. We can rise above the influence of our times and treat others better than they treat us. We can be tzaddikim in menschlichkeit as was Noach, despite the influence of a perverse society. Noach sowed the seeds of menschlichkeit for all generations to come.
This lesson is especially important for our own era. Hashem promised Avraham Avinu, “I shall make you into a great nation, bless you, and magnify your name.” The Gemara explains: “I shall make you into a great nation,” by letting Myself be known as the God of Avraham; “I shall bless you,” by letting Myself be known as the God of Yitzchak; “and magnify your name,” by letting Myself be known as the God of Yaakov. Lest Avraham think that all three names will be mentioned in the conclusion, Hashem added, “and you shall be a blessing” - the conclusion shall be in your name alone.
Most simply, the Gemara refers to the conclusion of the first beracha of Shemoneh Esrei, “Magen Avraham.” However, the Baal Shem Tov and the Megaleh Amukos explain that the Gemara also alludes to the conclusion of history – this final era in which the footsteps of Moshiach can be heard as they approach.
Each Forefather blazed his own unique path in the service of Hashem. Avraham walked the path of Kindness. Yitzchak walked the path of Avodah (prayer and sacrifice). Yaakov walked the path of Torah study. Our Forefathers personified the pillars of Torah, Avodah and Chesed that support the entire world, as described in Pirkei Avos.
Throughout history, the Jewish people have supported these three pillars with our own Torah, prayer and kind deeds. However, in this final era before Moshiach’s arrival, our Torah study and Avodah are sadly lacking, causing the entire world to totter. The remaining pillar upon which all else depends is kindness – the pillar of Avraham Avinu.
When faced with difficult friends, relatives and neighbors, we may find it hard to be as kind, giving and respectful as we would like to be. Nevertheless, we must redouble our efforts despite all the difficulties, and place our main emphasis on menschlichkeit, derech eretz, and mitzvos bein adam l’chaveiro: the proper character traits which give substance and meaning to our spiritual growth. Thereby, we draw closer to Hashem, escape our personal difficulties, and hasten the ultimate Redemption.
“What should a person do to escape the troubles that will befall the world in the era before Moshiach’s arrival?” R’ Elazar’s students asked him.
“Toil in Torah and perform deeds of kindness,” he answered.
Noach found favor in Hashem’s eyes and was rescued from the decree of destruction, in the merit of his pleasant behavior towards others. By emulating his behavior, we can find similar favor and be rescued from all misfortune.