From HaGaon Rav Zevadia HaCohen Shlit”a, The Head of the Batei Din in Tel Aviv
(translated by our dear friend Rav Daniel Levy Shlit”a, Leeds UK)
This Shabbat we read, “These are the chronicles of Noach, Noach was a righteous man, faultless in his generation, Noach walked with Hashem” (Bereishit 6:9).
Rashi HaKadosh z”l quotes the Talmud (Sanhedrin 108a) that there are those who explain this by way of a compliment and those who explain it by way of criticism. Rabbi Yochanan explained it by way of criticism he was righteous “in his generation”, specifically in his generation he was righteous, but wouldn’t have been considered so in other generations. So, if for example, he had lived at a time were there other righteous people, he wouldn’t have been considered special. Resh Lakish on the other hand explained it by way of praise. If already in such a wicked generation he was righteous, then all the more so had he lived at a time when he would have been around other righteous people.
This appears startling, since according to all opinions he was righteous in his generation, so why should anyone wish to denigrate Noach as what would be if he lived amongst other righteous people? We have a principle that a judge only has to consider the facts of what is in front of him [Bava Batra 131a], and since we see that in this current generation he was righteous, we should only explain this in a praiseworthy manner and why try and speculate what would be in other generations!
This may be explained as follows. Our sages taught us here an important principle. The measure of a righteous person isn’t calibrated simply by the situation he finds himself at that time and place, but rather based on the principles of the Torah – of halacha and mussar - as given at Sinai, without being influenced by the particular environment or peer pressure at any given time.
Sometimes a person knows that he only fulfils the mitzvot in a partial manner, or he only fulfils certain mitzvot that find favour in his eyes, or those he finds easy, or from his personal perspective, or from his understanding of things and as such, he knows that he is incomplete. However, he consoles himself that this is due to the people that he lives with now, be they family members or work colleagues. And so relative to them, he is a big tzaddik, since they keep nothing, and as such what he observes is perceived as considerable.
It wouldn’t be the first time, that even people who are considered G-d-fearing, that when they are at home and in their comfort zone that they display fear of Hashem and are meticulous in observing that which is less severe, just like they observe the severest aspects of the Torah. However, when they arrive in a different environment, which is less spiritual, less strong, for example when they go on an outing, are at work, or travelling, they allow themselves to descend spiritually, albeit temporarily. This is because the situation they now find themselves in, they are still considered completely righteous relative to those around them.
It is this that [some of the] the sages came to denigrate and explained in a critical way and considered Noach a righteous person only relative to his generation, at that time, with those people in which he found himself, but not truly from an objective stance.
And so, it is incumbent upon each of us when fulfilling the 613 mitzvot, according to the Shulchan Aruch, the less severe like the most severe halachot, at all times, in all circumstances and not based on peer pressure. Indeed, from such a perspective our sages will only explain our actions in a praiseworthy way.