Rabbi David Kalb is the Director of Jewish Education for the Bronfman Center for Jewish Life at 92nd Street Y. At 92Y Rabbi Kalb directs and teaches a variety of different learning programs for a range of ages. He also officiates at Jewish life cycle events and serves as a Jewish resource to the entire professional staff and lay leadership of the 92Y. Today he wrote the following guest blog for 92Y:
What is a Tzaddik? - Noach
In this week’s parsha (Torah Portion), the Torah refers to Noach (Noah) as a tzaddik, a righteous person (Bereishit/Geneses 6:9). It is very rare in the Tanach (The Bible) and Jewish literature in general to find a person who is called a tzaddik. Moshe (Moses) does not receive this title; neither does Avraham (Abraham). Why then is Noach worthy of being referred to as a tzaddik? The French Medieval commentator Rashi comments that Noach was a tzaddik in his generation, but if he had lived in the generation of Avraham, he would not have been given the title tzaddik.
It is interesting to note that the Noach is being compared to Avraham. Of all the people Noach might be compared to, why is Avraham the one selected? The answer might be that both Noach and Avraham reacted differently to similar scenarios. Both were faced with immoral communities and the subsequent question of what God would do to those communities. The immorality Noach faces is that of the entire world, while Avraham in Bereishit/Genesis Chapter 18 and 19 deals with the immorality of the cities of Sodom and Amora (Sodom and Gomora). When Noach is confronted by the immorality of the entire World what does he do? He builds an Ark, gathers his family, places two of every species of animals and floats away. True, Noach was commanded by God to follow this course of action. However, why doesn’t Noach confront the people of the World to try and get them to improve their behavior? Why doesn’t Noach speak to God on behalf of the World, to show compassion to the people of the World despite their immorality?
Avraham does both of these things. The narrative of Avrham’s life is the story of an individual who reaches out to people, even those who are not the most spiritual and ethical of people and to bring them closer to the messages of monotheism and morality. Furthermore, even when he knows that he is dealing with immoral people, he nonetheless defends them to God. Avraham bargains with God to save the inhabitants of Sodom and Amora. Avraham is able to achieve a high level of righteousness without separating himself from the world, but can rather be a tzaddik in the context of the world. Unlike Noach who is sequestered away from the real world in the Ark. Perhaps, when the title of tzaddik is given to Noach it is given not as an incredibly powerful compliment but more to make us think about what it really means to be a tzaddik and what it really means to pursuer a life of spirituality and ethics.
Studying the stories of Noach and Avraham demonstrate two different paths to kedusha, holiness. Noach’s approach entails a separation from the world, building a fence between one’s self and everyone else. Avraham’s approach is about going into the world and reaching people within it. While there is a holiness Noach’s approach, I want to bless you all that we all pursue righteousness in the tradition of Avraham.
Learn more in a fascinating analysis of the central text of Judaism on January 3. Check out all 92Y Jewish Studies - First Class programs.
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