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Torah Attitude: Parashas Noah: Righteous in his generation
Both opinions understand that the Torah is praising Noah for being a righteous person in such an evil generation. There are two ways how a person can elevate himself. All the honour and the generous wage offered the Rabbi was not in any measure compensation for living in a place with great scholars and sages. "Rather be a tail to lions than a head to foxes." The Emancipation brought a major test to the Jewish people. So many of our fellow Jews have fallen prey to intermarriage through social contact in the business world. The preferred way of learning is by associating and emulating righteous people, we must teach our children the beauty of Judaism to make them proud of their heritage
"Righteous in his generation"
In the beginning of this week's Torah portion, it says, (Bereishis 6:9) "These are the offspring of Noah. Noah was a perfect righteous man in his generation." The Talmud (Sanhedrin 108a) offers two interpretations of what the Torah means by describing Noah as "a perfect righteous man in his generation." As Rashi quotes, some of the sages interpreted this description in a positive way saying that although Noah lived in a corrupt society he nevertheless managed to elevate himself to be perfectly righteous. However, in righteousness there is no limit. Had Noah lived in a generation of other righteous people, he would have been even more righteous. Others interpreted this description in a negative way saying that Noah was considered perfectly righteous compared with his contemporaries. But if he had lived in a generation of other righteous people such as Abraham, he would not have been considered above the norm. There is no dispute here regarding the righteousness of Noah. The discussion is only what we are to learn from the words "righteous in his generation." Obviously, both opinions understand that the Torah is praising Noah for being a righteous person in such an evil generation. The seemingly negative opinion just adds that Noah had the potential to rise even higher if he had lived in a righteous generation.
Two ways to elevate
As a matter of fact, there are two ways how a person can elevate himself. One way is by learning from and emulating righteous people. The other way is by observing the wickedness and corruption of evildoers and elevating oneself above them. In Pirkei Avos (6:9) Rabbi Yossi Ben Kisma relates how he was once walking on the road and met another person. The stranger asked the Rabbi: "From which place are you?" The Rabbi answered, "I am from a great town of scholars and teachers." Said the stranger, "Rabbi, would you be ready to live with us in our place? And I would pay you millions of golden dinars, precious stones and pearls." Answered Rabbi Yossi, "Even if you were to give me all silver and gold and all the precious stones and pearls in the world I would never live but in a place of Torah."
The best compensation
The Chofetz Chaim explains that the stranger was very surprised. He saw this distinguished Rabbi travelling on the road all by himself and he was wondering how the people of the Rabbi's town could allow such an important person to travel without an entourage to accompany him. Most certainly, the people of that town did not have appropriate respect for Torah scholars. To this the Rabbi answered the stranger that he came from a place where there were scholars and sages even more learned than him. When the stranger heard this he suggested, "Would it not be a good idea that you lived in our place? We would make you the head of our community and we would honour you according to your status." However, the Rabbi told him that all the honour they would bestow upon him and the generous wage offered him was not in any measure compensation for living in a place with great scholars and sages where he could learn from them and grow in his learning with them.
Tail to lions
Earlier in Pirkei Avos (4:14) we are taught this same lesson: "Rather be a tail to lions than a head to foxes." Rabbeinu Yona in his commentary on this Mishnah quotes from Proverbs (13:20): "Someone who goes to the scholars will get smarter; whereas the leader of fools will deteriorate." The same words are quoted by the Rambam (Laws of Character Traits 6:1) when he discusses the strong influence of society on the individual. The Rambam writes: "The nature of man is to be influenced in his character and in his deeds by his friends and associates and by the conduct of the people of his country. Therefore, a person should join with righteous people and always live with sages so that one can learn from their deeds and distance oneself from evildoers who walk in darkness in order not to learn from their deeds. This is what King Solomon says: 'Someone who goes to the scholars will get smarter …' And so if someone lives in a country where the conduct is bad and the people are not straight in their ways one should move to a place where the people are righteous and conduct themselves in a good way. And if all the known countries … conduct themselves in a bad way as nowadays or a person is not able to move … one should sit in solitude …"
The Emancipation, when the gentile world gave equal rights to their Jewish citizens and permitted them to join in the trade unions and gave them admission to higher education, brought a major test to the Jewish people. Today, only someone who keeps the words of the Rambam in front of his eyes, and keeps away from excessive social interaction with the gentile world around us will be able to succeed to avoid the pitfalls of assimilation. At the same time that we must be grateful and appreciate that we have been given the opportunity to receive education and to do business without any limitations, we must constantly be on the alert to the dangers of assimilation that comes with these opportunities.
Prey to intermarriage
Rabbi Yossi Ben Kisma clearly taught us that wealth and status is not a compensation for Torah wisdom and Torah life. Doing business with the gentile population can only be acceptable as long as we do not have to compromise on our moral standards and social norm. So many of our fellow Jews have fallen prey to intermarriage through social contact in the business world. Even more so, we need to be cautious in our children's education not to allow the permissive atmosphere of contemporary society to infiltrate into our homes and into the minds of our most precious sons and daughters. The media, movies and internet all have tremendous influence and power over the minds of both adults and children. Companies spend millions of dollars to infiltrate our minds for split seconds, being well aware how powerful every image that passes in front of our eyes is. Just as it is scientifically proven that the rise in violence in our society is a direct outcome of the many scenes of violence shown on television and in movies, so is every act, spoken word and thought of the mind influenced by what we read and watch daily. Unfortunately, many youngsters have been lost to the Jewish nation in recent years due to their lack of Jewish education and the influence of the media and their gentile friends. Had their parents been more careful in monitoring what they read and watch, and in choosing the educational facilities for their children, and even more so their friends and the places where they socialized, much of this could have been avoided.
Tools and opportunities
We all want the best for our children and the vast majority of Jewish parents tell their children that they want them to marry Jewish spouses. However, we must be aware that we must follow the advice of our sages and give them the opportunity to learn by associating with and emulating righteous people. If we fail to teach our children the beauty of Judaism, if we fail to make them proud of their heritage, there is very little chance that they will listen to us and not join the gentile population around them. We have both the tools and the opportunities, and we owe it to ourselves and our children to give them all the support and help they need to be righteous in their generation.
These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shema Yisrael Torah Network