The Torah introduces Noah in a peculiar way: “Noah was a righteous man; he was blameless in his generation.” (Genesis 6:9)
Some rabbinic commentators saw “in his age” as an implicit critique. The world around him being corrupt, by contrast Noah was a relatively decent person. Place him in a generation of better moral character, and he would not have been exceptional at all.
Other commentators see “in his age” as an implicit compliment. If in such an age Noah managed to remain righteous and blameless, just imagine what such strength of character he could have achieved in a generation of good people.
Either way, the message remains similar: the way we assess a person’s character and actions must be viewed in the context of time and place.
When we compare Noah to Abraham, however, and ask the question of why Abraham, and not Noah, was called by God to be “the father of a great nation” that would eventually become the Jewish people, the weight of traditional commentary falls on the side of Noah having failed rather than prevailing.
When Noah is told of the impending flood, and instructed to build an ark, the Torah reports, “Noah did so; just as God commanded him, so he did.” (Genesis 6:22) Noah sets about doing what is necessary to save himself and his family.
When God tells Abraham to remove himself from the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah as God is about to destroy them, something quite different happens. Abraham challenges God: “Will You wipe away the innocent along with the guilty? Shall not the Judge of all the earth also act justly?” (Genesis 18:22-25)
The biblical imperative of ethical behavior is implicit in the early chapters of Genesis. It is concretized in the covenantal traditions of receiving the Torah at Sinai. And that same imperative is repeated with insistent intensity by the biblical prophets, who are especially unforgiving of moral laxity.
But when we read the prophetic denunciations, we, like Abraham, may wonder: was the entire population really so totally evil? Surely there were acts of kindness, compassion, and righteousness somewhere in the days of the prophets. Surely there were those who fulfilled to the best of their ability the terms of the Covenant, ritual as well as ethical. Nonetheless, from the perspective of many of the prophets, human actions are judged by severe rather than lenient standards.
From the time of the Bible to our own times, the expectations placed on the Jewish people — both by ourselves and by others — have been as much a challenge to us to do better, as a criticism of us for not doing enough. Jewish tradition, as articulated by teachers and texts across the centuries, has rarely suggested that “everyone is the same…or worse” is an appropriate measure for what we expect of ourselves in response to the imperatives of the Torah tradition.
The contemporary State of Israel is our laboratory for the application of these standards. But as with the story of Noah, those standards should be placed in a context. Rabbi Yitz Greenberg once taught that “if Israel proves to be 10 percent better ethically than the rest of the world, it will be a ‘light unto the nations.’ If it proves to be 25 percent better, it will bring the Messiah. If it is fifty percent better, it will be dead. No one and no group can survive in this world if they act 50 percent better than the rest of humanity.”
Whether Noah was judged in an exemplary or inferior manner in the context of his time, there is something to be said for striving to be “righteous in our generation.” That is at least the path to the possible, if not the path to perfection.