Parshas Noach, Seudah Shlishis 5777, Jerusalem
(or, "Dealing with Mean People")
The Torah tells us that Noach was a “tzaddik in his generation.” Rashi comments that some of our Sages explain “in his generation” to Noach’s credit. He managed to rise above the influence of his wicked generation and become a tzaddik. Others explain it as a criticism. He was righteous only compared to the wicked of his generation. In a generation of other righteous people, such as Avraham Avinu, he would not have been reckoned righteous.
If the verse can be interpreted positively, to Noach’s credit, why does the second opinion choose to interpret it negatively? Why be cynical, if one could just as easily be gracious?
The Divrei Yisrael notes that Rashi attributes the positive interpretation to “Rabboseinu” - our Sages. He does not attribute the negative interpretation to the Sages, but simply writes, “Some say.” These were not the Sages, but the sour minded fault finders of his times, who viewed his every good deed with pessimism and scorn.
Rashi tells us this to stress the emotional nisayon that Noach had to endure. No matter how hard he tried to rise above the bad influences around him and improve himself, there were always people who would criticize him and sneer at his faults. “You think you are a tzaddik, but compared to a true tzaddik, you are nothing,” they said.
As a person tries to improve and overcome his faults, rather than finding applause and encouragement, he often meets with the harsh insults of those who would discredit him in precisely those same areas that he tries hardest to improve.
For example, the Torah tells us that Moshe Rabbeinu was the most humble person in the world. Yet Korach challenged Moshe and blamed him for trying to arrogantly exalt himself over the Jewish people, "מַדּוּעַ תִּתְנַשְּׂאוּ עַל קְהַל ה'" - “Why do you raise yourself above the congregation of Hashem?” (Bamidbar 16:3).
Rebbe Yitzchak of Vorke had great love for the Jewish people and made endless efforts to raise money for charity. One time, he and his gabbai came to a city to raise money for pidyon shvuyim (releasing captives), and discovered billboards posted all over the streets, deriding him as a selfish fraud, who kept all the money he raised for himself. The gabbai was shocked and angered to see his great Rebbe slandered like that, but Rebbe Yitzchak just smiled.
“The yetzer hara works in many ways to stop a person from growing,” Rebbe Yitzchak explained. “After a person has overcome all the obstacles, the yetzer hara’s last attack is to publicly humiliate him for being the very opposite of what he has worked so hard to become. Once a person has endured this final attack, the yetzer hara has no more weapons against him.”
The Chasam Sofer writes that every Jewish leader has his opponents. Overcoming those opponents is a crucial part of the leader’s rise to greatness. From the first moment that Moshe Rabbeinu arose in Egypt to lead Bnei Yisrael, Dasan and Aviram rose to oppose him.
(Hardest of all is when our opponents are from our own family. Moshe Rabbeinu had these too, as even his brother and sister, Aharon and Miriam, spoke against him.)
The truth is that every Jew is a tzaddik. We are all leaders in our own special way, and in our own special traits. The Yid HaKodesh taught that in addition to the 613 mitzvos that we all must fulfill, each person has two particular mitzvos that he was sent down to this world specifically to fulfill. The mitzvah for which he feels the greatest enthusiasm is his own special positive commandment, while the aveirah that he finds the most difficulty resisting is his own special prohibition.
As we work our hardest to fulfill these special mitzvos, we find our greatest opponents. We must be prepared for this challenge, since it will certainly come. Precisely on what we have worked the hardest to achieve, people will try to discredit us the most.
The Noam Elimelech davened, “We should see the qualities of our fellows, and not their faults.” People are inclined to find fault in others, precisely in the areas that they have the greatest quality.
Rebbe Yechezkel of Kozmir said that the credit of Noach was even greater, since he grew so much despite the gainsayers who would always find fault in him. He kept on building the ark, even as people mocked him for it.
The Torah could have avoided any misinterpretation and written very clearly that Noach was a true tzaddik. However, the Torah deliberately left room for the gainsayers to mock him, that he was only a tzaddik relative to his wicked generation. The Torah wished to teach us that enduring scorn and criticism is a necessary part of our spiritual growth. We must have the strength and fortitude to keep growing, and keep striving towards what is right, even as others mock us for it.