The narrative stories found in the Book of Genesis are rich and full of life. Each character seems to jump off the Torah scroll and into our hearts. One cannot help but feel drawn in by the stories we return to year in and year out. Through the patriarchs and matriarchs of Genesis, we learn about family, friendship, love, and loss. With each new reading and rereading, we gain some new insight.
When it comes to Noah, we learn quite a bit from the very beginning:
“Noah was a righteous man; he was blameless in his age; Noah walked with God.”
Noah was righteous; he stands alongside other examples of virtue in the Torah. In fact, the word tzadik, righteous, is only used to describe Noah, which perhaps points to his particular piety. However, most commentators focus on the second description of Noah: “blameless in his age.” The word tamim can be translated as blameless, simple, good, whole, perfect, unblemished; the fact remains, Noah was descent. The real challenge comes from the following word, b’dorotav, in his generation. Was Noah good, or was he simply good in comparison with his time? As Rashi phrased it:
“Some of our Rabbis explain this phrase to his credit: he was righteous even in his generation; had he lived in a generation of righteous people he would have been even more righteous! Others explain it to his discredit: in comparison with his own generation, he was righteous, but had he lived in the generation of Abraham he would have been considered ordinary.”
Many commentators take the later approach. Yes, Noah was a righteous individual, but he wouldn’t measure up against the greats. The bar was surely low in his generation; as a consequence of the collective sins of humanity, God wished to reverse creation. Furthermore, in the biblical text, there is no evidence that Noah did anything to protest God’s plan to flood the world. Chapters later in the Torah, Abraham argues with God on behalf of the people of Sodom, and Moses convinces God to give the Israelites another chance after sinning. Noah engaged in no such intercession on behalf of his neighbors, which may prove his situational piety, but not his absolute righteousness.
And yet, perhaps the opposite is true. In a world plagued by cruelty and misbehavior, it takes quite a bit of inner strength and integrity to stand true to one’s morals. Noah was not merely a decent person in a bad world; he was good amidst sin, respectable despite the corruption that surrounded him.
Stepping back for a moment, we would do well to ask ourselves whether it is necessary, or appropriate, to ask this question of Noah in the first place. Why must we concern ourselves with making comparisons? So what if Noah wasn’t like Abraham or Moses? Is it our place to rank acts of righteousness, to pit good against good?
A famous story is told of one of the great Chassidic masters, Reb Zusha of Hanipol:
“Reb Zusha looked worried on his deathbed, to which his students asked, ‘Rebbe, what do you have to worry about? You were as righteous as Moses and as kind as Abraham! You have nothing to fear from death.’ Reb Zusha replied: ‘My students, I am not worried that the Holy One will ask me why I didn’t live more like Moses or Abraham. I am afraid God will ask me, ‘Zusha, why weren’t you more like Zusha?!’’”
Like Noah, it is our responsibility to be who we are. We will not go far comparing ourselves to others, trying to be others, hoping to become someone we are not. But we must reach ever higher, being whole in the here and now, for the benefit of all.
 Gen. 6:9
 Gen. 18:23–25
 Ex. 32:31–32