Friday, October 28, 2011

Two-minute Torah: Comparative and Absolute Righteousness

Not everything I wrote is as lengthy as what I have posted so far. Every week -- well, almost every week -- I send out a "Two-minute Torah" commentary. Here is today's, on Noah.

The Torah reading this week is Parashat Noach which begins with the story of Noah. The very first sentence of the parasha tells us that Noah was upright “in his generation.” Anyone familiar with rabbinic interpretation will immediately be drawn to that phrase, because it seems superfluous. Why doesn’t the Torah just tell us Noah was upright? What does “in his generation” add to our learning?

Rashi tells us that there are two possible interpretations, without himself choosing which one is correct. One possibility is that “in his generations” is a form of damning by faint praise. It is only “in his generation” that he is considered righteous -- in other words, comparatively but not absolutely. He was the least evil person in a very evil generation and thus by comparison could be considered righteous; but had he lived in a different generation he would not have been particularly noteworthy.

The other possibility is that Noah’s righteousness is all the more noteworthy given that he lived among evildoers. By this understanding, it is easy to be righteous when everyone around you is also righteous -- just as it is easier to keep kosher in Jerusalem than in Norwich. But it is harder to be righteous when all around you, social pressure is pushing you in the direction of evil.

Which is true? One thing for certain that we learn from this debate is that all living is contextual. Our surroundings do influence us. It is harder to hold to our principles when all around us we see others violating them; but perhaps on the other side, we deserve all the more credit for doing so. I suspect that in the end, both possibilities that Rashi offers can be true simultaneously.

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