Our פרשה opens up by speaking about Noach’s children. Then the פסוק describes Noach as an “איש צדיק, תמים היה בדורותיו“, a tzadik, a perfect man in his generation, which is a prelude to why he is saved shortly thereafter from destruction. However, Rashi famously interprets this subjective passuk in two ways:
בדורותיו- יש מרבותינו דורשים אותו לשבח, כל שכן שאלו היה בדור צדיקים היה צדיק יותר, ויש שדורשים אותו לגנאי,ג לפי דורו היה צדיק, ואלו היה בדורו של אברהם לא היה נחשב לכלום:
In his generation– There are some rabbis who explain this as praise, for if he would have been in a generation of tzadikim, he would have been even greater. Others explain this as reprimand, for compared to his generation, he was righteous, but if he would have been in the generation of Avraham, he would not have been significant at all. (רש”י, בראשית ו:ט)
While the passuk can pretty easily be read as praise, it is a little bit more difficult to see Noach as a רשע– he is explicitly called a “צדיק” after all, and he was the only one saved from an otherwise doomed generation.
However, I believe the answer can be found by looking at the specific comparison that those who “דורש לגנאי” use. Of all of the righteous figures in the Torah, it is interesting that Noach is compared to Avraham; after all, Avraham’s generation was not particularly righteous or great. Noach could not have possibly be influenced into being more “תמים” by being around the idol worshiper of Avraham’s time.
It is my belief that the rabbinic figures who “דורש לגנאי” are not speaking about Noach’s personal spiritual level, which could have been influenced to be better by a holier generation, but rather his ability to influence others to try to make his generation holier. In Rashi’s commentary, Noach is compared specifically to Avraham, who was born as an idol worshipper to Terach, who is know by the midrash as a head minister of עבודה זרה in Ur Kasdim. Avraham was able to separate himself from these surroundings, initially spiritually and eventually physically with G-d’s command of “לך לך.” But, he didn’t settle for this- once he was separate, once he was “תמים,” Avraham took this idea a step further by trying to influence others (see the famous רש”י describing the beginning of פרשת וירא as a Avraham’s prototypical greeting to guests traveling, and the underlying religious meaning of every step of it). By doing this, he stepped up and reached “התהלך לפני והיה תמים.”
Noach’s description as an ״תמים היה בדורותי,” in contrast, seems to inspire less confidence in his religious commitment. Yes, he lived his life as an “איש צדיק;” yes, he was “תמים,” and managed to raise three children in a generation and land full of חמס. But, I believe, he may not be looked so favorably upon by later rabbinic figures because he settled for being “תמים היה בודרותיו,” and never tried to influence others to do תשובה, never trying to save the world. For this reason, even though he was saved flood waters for being an “איש צדיק,” the subject post-script of “תמים היה בדורותיו” is attached to his name- because for all of those reading Noach’s story to look for reassurance in a time of spiritual difficulty, they should know that the ideal response is not Noach’s, but rather Avraham’s, of trying to save the world rather than letting it rot and trying to save themselves.
Noach’s response to this fight-or-flight situation seems prototypical to an especially tricky יצר הרע described by Rav Teichtel in אם הבנים שמחה. There (פרק ב:אות יג), the Rav writes that when things seem far from perfect in the world, people can react in two different ways, very ironically in the same way that Rashi breaks down the interpretation of “תמים היה בדורותיו.” Here too “יש דורשים לשבח ויש דורשים לגנאי,” some Jews, the ones who remain committed to Torah and mitzvot, will see the generaiton for “גנאי,” and seal themselves off from it in order to insulate their families and remain (for?) “תמים היה בדורותיו.” However, as we’ve seen above, this is not the ideal reaction. Rather, we must work to be those who are “דורשים לשבח,” and go out in the world in order to save it, becoming our generation’s Avrahams who influence the world (?why — while?) remaining עברים, separate. Only then can we hope to reach the significantly higher level of “התהלך לפני והיה תימים.” Rav Teichtel adds that it is only the יצר הרע that stops us from reacting this way, by telling us that it is too late to affect change or to help anyone else. This selfish evil inclination has led many in our time to insulate from the world, falling into the trap of “תמים היה בדורותיו.”
Rav Teichtel concludes with an important message for us. He writes that in terms of the all-important commandment of ישוב הארץ, settling the land, we cannot yield even an inch to this evil inclination. He taught that symbolically, Hashem wants to send our redemption, but he cannot because the שטן would not let it pass into the world, saying that we are not worthy yet. Instead, He has to send it a little bit at a time, disguised as something that seems far from holy, in order to allow theגאולה to pass through the “מקטרגים, prosecutors,” and reach our world. Even though Rav Teichtel wrote this over 70 years ago, this description aptly fits מדינת ישראל. Even though the religious observers of our Jewish state is growing, unfortunately, there are more people than not who are not yet שומרי תורה ומצות. This could lead many to ignore theאתחלתא דגאולה, instead being “דורש לגנאי” and trying to insulate themselves in communities both in Israel and the Diaspora to avoid “contaminating” themselves and their families. However, I believe it is clear from what I’ve brought above that aside from being a completely wrong and selfish way of approaching the issue, it is exactly what the שטן wants us to do! Our challenge is to be the אברהם העברי‘s of our generation, to interpret our secular מדינה as “שבח” to Hashem’s subtle and gradual redemption, and try to affect religious change in the State of Israel. We must follow Avraham’s example of התלך לפני והיה תמים, because, with the rise of global Anti-Semetism, ISIS and Ebola (amongst other dangers) abroad, and in light of Wednesday’s tragic terrorist attack in Jerusalem, time is running out and there is no time to waste insulating ourselves when there is a world to save from destruction.