“These are the generations of Noach – Noach was a righteous man, perfect in his generations; Noach walked with G-d” (Bereishit Chapter 6 Verse 9)
In relation to the phrase – ‘in his generations’, Rashi explains that some sages understood this verse in praise of Noach – that is to say that Noach was righteous in his generation, in an environment of corruption and promiscuity; how much more righteous would he have been had he lived in a truly righteous generation – if he had had the companionship and inspiration of Avraham Avinu! According to others, however, our verse is in fact actually critical of Noach – only in his generation by comparison with his extremely wicked contemporaries, did Noach stand out as a righteous man; but had he lived in the time of Avraham Avinu he would have been insignificant.
Rashi is dealing with the fact that the text emphasizes ‘in his generations’. In explaining the need for the word ‘his’, Rashi offers us two possibilities, as quoted above. However, he does not explain why the word ‘generations’ is written in the plural form – ‘dorotav’ as opposed to the singular form – ‘generation – doro’.
The Midrash Shocher Tov in commenting on the very first verse of Tehilim states:
“ ‘Happy is the man’ – this is Noach; ‘who does not follow evil council’ – over three generations – the generation of Enosh, the generation of the flood, and the generation of Migdal Bavel”
The Midrash explains that the plural form – ‘generations – dorotav’ that is used in our verse indicates to us that Noach lived through a number of generations, and in each generation when faced with the particular challenge of the time, he proved to be a man of worth and righteousness – Noach was a righteous man in every generation that he lived in.
I would like to briefly look at each of the three periods described by the Midrash.
(1) The generation of Enosh
(2) The generation of the flood
(3) The generation of Migdal Bavel
The generation of Enosh:
From the verses in Torah we know very little about the times of Enosh. In fact we only really have one verse of reference:
“And as for Shet, to him also a son was born, and he named him Enosh – then to call in the Name of Hashem became profaned” (Bereishit Chapter 4 Verse 26)
Rashi explains that the generation of Enosh introduced idolatry, which was to hound humanity for thousands of years. By ascribing G-d-like qualities to man and lifeless objects, they created the abominable situation in which to call in the Name of Hashem became profaned.
Rambam in his introduction to Hilchot Avodah Zara, explains exactly how the situation deteriorated during these times. Idolatry began when people felt that they should honor the heavenly bodies as G-d’s emissaries to the world, just as it is proper to honor the ministers of a ruler. However, as time passed the trend spread and became more and more corrupted, until worshippers forgot about Hashem entirely and assumed that all powers were vested in whatever representation that they chose to worship.
As Noach was developing in his earlier years, the people were beginning to move away from direct worship of Hashem. The Torah, according to Midrash Shocher Tov, informs us, at the very start of our Parasha, that Noach was not influenced by this trend, and remained a true servant of Hashem.
The generation of the flood:
We know that there were many problems during this generation, however Rashi is very clear as to what the deciding factor regarding the fate of the world depended on:
“And Hashem said to Noach, ‘The end of all flesh has come before Me, for the earth is filled with robbery…’” (Bereishit Chapter 6 verse 13)
Rashi comments: The final decree regarding the flood was due to the robbery.
Rav Hirsch explains further that we are not talking of robbery per say; society can and does protect itself against robbery through prisons and penalties. However, at the time of the flood, the people sinned through underhand dealing by cunning astute dishonesty, craftily keeping within the letter of the law, yet constantly doing the wrong thing. In a scenario such as this society will inevitably go to ruin, by wrong doing which human justice cannot reach, but which can only be prevented by self-judging conscientiousness before Hashem.
At a time when society was crumbling around him, Noach once again stood alone against the trend.
It is also clear to for us to see that the events of the two generations are not disconnected. The generation of the flood and its downfall came about as a direct consequence of the actions of Enosh and his generation.
As man moved further and further away from his worship of G-d, as man moved further away from objective truth, and closer to subjective morality, it is almost a forgone conclusion that society and its truest values would disintegrate.
Yet, Noach not as well as being righteous in the generation of Enosh, but because he had remained righteous in that time; because he stood firm in his belief of Hashem, when every one else stumbled; when challenged by the events of the generation at the time of the flood, Noach with his objective truth, could not be influenced, by the changing moral norms of the civilization around him. Noach would not agree to adapt moral truths in order that they fit into each of societies failings and desires. It is exactly because Noach remained dedicated to avodat Hashem, that he stood his moral high ground at the time of the flood.
The generation of Migdal Bavel:
When regarding the generation of Migdal Bavel, from the initial verses it is not absolutely clear as to how they erred, though there are many differing suggestions in our commentaries.
What we do know is that the punishment applied to the people of the time was dispersion. If we act on the premise that punishment is being used as an educational tool, then from the punishment we can understand the problem of the generation.
We are told at the start of Chapter 11:
“The whole earth was of one language and of common purpose”.
I had always imagined that this verse was describing an idyllic society that had learnt from the mistakes of the generation of the flood. The generation of the flood had no respect for one another, they stole, they murdered, they were promiscuous – thus they were destroyed. The generation of Migdal Bavel learnt the lessons of the past, they were united, and they were together – so why were they punished, why were they dispersed?
There is a comment by Rashi that has always puzzled me. When the verse describes the reality in Bavel after Hashem changed the one accepted language into many differing languages.
Rashi describes a scenario where if two men were involved in a specific area of the building project, one would ask the other for a specific material, the other now not being able to decipher his fellows request, handed him the wrong material, as a frustrated reaction the one man killed the other (literally – smashed his head).
If we accept the premise that the people were totally united, that they had learnt their lessons from the previous generations, then surely the fact that they could not understand each other temporarily, would not bring on such a violent response?
It is quite possible that Rashi in this comment is alluding to the fact that the unity as described at the beginning of the Chapter, was superficial to say the least. There were public statements of unity, of caring, and of oneness, but when put to the test, when in times of trouble, the unity of the people disintegrated into the violence of the previous generation.
Hashem dispersed the people to teach them that real unity is not defined by superficial acts and popular clichés. Two people can be separated by hundreds of miles, yet have more care and love for each other than next-door neighbors.
Once again, we are told that Noach stood firm, he was not involved in the building of the tower, and he did not follow the trend of society. Noach understood that true unity would only come from a society based on objective truth, and real moral and ethical norms, dictated by the Almighty.
We can actually understand the Midrash to be explaining to us, that because Noach had a strong firm belief in derech Hashem, because he survived the generation of Enosh, he was able to survive the generation of the flood, and because he was who he was, he did not fail at the time of Migdal Bavel.
In the same way that Noach faced these three major challenges over three different generations, each and every one of us faces all three of these challenges everyday.
The phenomenon of Enosh – Idolatry and paganism does not essentially exist today in the western world; however, distractions from avodat Hashem exist wherever we turn. There are so many ‘alternatives’ open to us, that the challenge of following derech Hashem in an extremely material and selfish world is enormous. The word of G-d is continuously challenged and time and again Judaism is in court facing accusations from every direction. As religious Jews we stand firm, as did Noach, despite the trends of the masses, despite the ongoing accusations, our belief in Hashem and in the objective truth of Torah stands unwaveringly firm in the midst of all challenges.
Due to our undiluted absolute faith in Torat Hashem, we strive to create a society of loving and care, of real unity. We are taught that Chesed le Avraham precedes Emet le Yaakov. Our behavior in ben adam lechavero is a prerequisite to our ben adam leMakom. We live in times where people are so involved in themselves, in their own well being that they see nothing of the suffering and distress around them. As opposed to what many would like us to believe, the most just and moral society is one directed by the word of G-d, not one created by man.
As Noach stood with real true values at the time of the flood, so it is our duty to ensure that society runs in the most just and honest way possible. We must lead by example in every aspect of our behavior; we must always be looking to apply our truest Torah values in our care for one another.
Am Yisrael, has so many challenges as a people. We must not make the mistakes of the generation of Bavel. It is not enough to make public statements of unity and caring, when they are not backed up with solid actions. We must strive to build true strong connections amongst our people, wherever they are, whatever they may be doing. Achdut does not mean that we all have to agree all of the time, it does not mean that we have to speak only one language, it does mean that wherever we may be and whatever we may be doing, we have internalized the inherent truth that we are one people, we must show tolerance and understanding for every member of our wonderful people.
Most importantly, we must realize that external unity will only be true unity, if we follow the path of Noah. If we follow the path of Hashem, internalize the inherent values of Torah, and apply them stringently, we will have a society of worth, and we will become truly united.