In the beginning of this week’s Parsha, a relatively famous Gemara mentioned by Rashi prompts additional thought and consideration.
Commenting on the Torah’s description of Noach as a righteous man “b’dorosav”, “in his generation”, Rashi cites the Gemara Sanhedrin 108a which quotes two ways to understand the seemingly superfluous comment “in his generation”. Some argue that it is meant as extra praise- that if Noach managed to be righteous even though he lived in a generation of sinners, he certainly would have been even greater had he lived in Avraham’s generation of tzaddikim. Others contend that “in his generation” is actually a criticism- that he was only righteous compared to his generation of sinners. However, had he lived in Avraham’s generation, compared to Avraham and the other tzaddikim of that generation, Noach would not have been considered righteous.
The Gemara’s comparison of Avraham to Noach brings to the forefront a fundamental question that we should be thinking about as we read through these parshiyot. Why exactly does G-d choose Avraham to be the father of His chosen nation? What was it about Avraham that convinced Hashem that he was the one, as opposed to the many other tzaddikim that came before him, particularly Noach, who the text identifies as a “tzaddik tamim”, “completely righteous” person?
I would like to focus on one answer given to this question by many commentaries. They point out that if we look carefully at the lives of both Avraham and Noach, a crucial pattern emerges. Noach was a great man, but he was “self-focused”- his only concern throughout his life was caring for himself and his family. In contrast, Avraham was “other-focused”- throughout his life, he looked to help and impact upon those around him.
G-d tells Noach to build an ark because He is going to destroy the world, while he and his family will be saved, and Noach does exactly what G-d tells him. He doesn’t challenge G-d to try and save others- nor does He attempt to influence those around him. He worries solely about himself and his family- and saves those whom G-d commands him to save.
In a somewhat similar situation, G-d informs Avraham that He is going to destroy the cities of Sodom and Amora. Although Avraham and his family will not be impacted negatively, Avraham’s automatic response is to challenge G-d in order to save the citizens of the threatened cities.- “Hashofeit Kol Ha’aretz Lo Yaase Mishpat?”, “will the arbiter of Justice not act justly?” Avraham’s argument to Hashem borders on the disrespectful- but is fueled by his care and concern for his fellow man, and his desire to do what he can to help them. His love for others pushes him to challenge Hashem.
As another case in point- Avraham discovers G-d, something which he recognizes as great and extraordinary. However, his reaction is to not to pull away and insulate himself from those around him, but instead to set up a tent with four open sides, in order to share his newfound gift with those around him.
This, suggest many, is why G-d chose Avraham. As great a tzaddik as Noach may have been, Hashem realized that the father of the Jewish people needed to be someone who was not just great and righteous, but someone whose life was defined by chessed, by care and concern for those around him- someone who entire essence was centered around helping others.
In Pirkei Avot 1:14 Hillel famously declares, “im ein ani li, mi li? uk’sheani l’atzmi, mah ani?”- “If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And if I am [only] for myself, then what am I? First and foremost, a person needs to understand their uniqueness- that if they dont bring into the world what they are meant to bring, then no one else can replace them. However, Hillel doesn’t stop there- he continues. If we are only focused on ourselves, if we don’t take who we are, and who we have become, and share that with others, then “mah ani”, what are we as people and as individuals?
We have noted before that one of the unique challenges of our generation, the “selfie” and “I” generation, is the total focus on oneself, and one’s own personal needs. We live in a world of complete personalization- where everything a person has, and does, is customized to their specific wants and needs. On social media, everyone shares their personal opinion about all things going on in the world, as if each person is an expert on all topics. And while this focus on one’s self has led to some positive outcomes- as people are generally more “self-aware” and more in touch with their own personal needs- it has led to many negative consequences as well. One particularly problematic result of this societally manufactured narcissism is an inability to respect another person’s needs or viewpoints- it’s become much harder for kids (and adults!) to share with others, or to tolerate those who disagree with their opinions.
As we raise our kids in today’s world, we must push hard against these trends. Children naturally grow up self-absorbed and egocentric, and if left to their own devices, their selfishness and self-centeredness could well continue throughout their lives- especially in today’s self-centered society. From an early age, therefore, we must cultivate within our children a sense of the “other”. It is crucial for us to imbue within our children, from a very young age, an ability to see beyond themselves and to care for the needs of others. While we must absolutely make sure that our children have a healthy dose of self-esteem and are able to take care of themselves and fulfill their own personal needs, we have to also ensure that we plant within them an ability to recognize the value of someone else’s needs, and a respect for the viewpoints of others. By raising our kids to be aware of others, and to help and care for those around them, we encourage them to actualize the G-dly spark within their own souls, and we enable them to experience the wonderful feeling that can only come through helping another. We also prepare them for life- inculcating within them an ability to make friends, have healthy relationships, create a strong marriage, and raise a family.
As we see in this week’s parsha, Noach was a great man, an “ish Tzadik tamim”, a “a completely righteous man”. But he was missing one major ingredient that had to be present within the father of the Jewish people- a natural inclination to care for, and live for, those around him. Avraham, the prototypical “ish chessed”, personified this trait through and through- and perhaps this is why G-d ultimately chose him as our forefather. It is this trait that we must strive to cultivate within our children, particularly in a generation where such sensitivity and compassion is so extremely rare.
Wishing everyone a Shabbat Shalom!