“These are the generations of Noach; Noach was a just man and perfect in his generations…” (Beresheet 6:9).
Noach is a man associated by all with the era of the Great Flood, which eradicated life from our planet with the exception of those saved through the efforts of Noach and his family on the teivah. The Torah tells us some of the post-Flood events of Noach’s life but most people don’t realize that a young Avraham Avinu actually met Noach. The lives of these two great Torah personalities overlapped. Noach lived a total of 950 years — 350 years after the flood began. Noach’s life — even at a time when many people lived far longer than we do today — is one of the longest recorded in the annals of man. He truly lived in more than one generation.
Rashi points out that the “generations of Noach” is stated in the plural when referring to his character: “just and perfect in his generations” (Beresheet 6:9). Some, he explains, consider the use of the plural for generation as a praise and some look at it as a shortcoming. Those that praise him say that he lived in a wicked environment and yet he still behaved righteously. They add that had he had great people around him, he would have been even greater in moral perfection.
Others state that he was great only because he lived at a time when mankind was morally weak; had he lived in the generation of Avraham Avinu, he would not be considered at all righteous.
Rav Yosef Caro, author of the Shulchan Aruch, joins those who praise Noach by comparing his behavior to others that lived in his generations. The first generation in which Noach lived was identified by the moral breakdown of society. Dishonesty was the rule rather than the exception. People and even animals behaved in ways that the Torah calls “abomination.” As the passuk states, “The earth also was corrupt before G-d, and the earth was filled with violence. And G-d looked upon the earth and behold it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted its way upon the earth” (Beresheet 6: 11–12). Depravity was the rule, not the exception. In such an environment, Noach maintained his honesty and his morality.
After the flood, people were different. They lived in one area, in social unity, and spoke one language. The Torah does not record any immoral behavior. Yet they did sin and were punished by being dispersed throughout the world and by being divided by language barriers heretofore unknown. Their flaw was a lack of emunah generated by success and the feeling that they were strong, accomplished and ingenious. It was the technological advance of the day — the discovery of a way to make bricks with which to build tall sturdy structures — that infused them with conceit. “We are not like the primitive generations of the past,” they thought to themselves. “We are able to do as we wish — even build a tower to the heavens and displace the Creator!” Hashem foiled their plans forever with the dispersion from Bavel.
Rav Yosef Caro explains: Noach’s greatness was his resistance to the evil of the day. He was able to remain steadfast in the face of social pressure and the trends of the day. In a morally depraved generation he was a tzaddik — the description used for the morally pure like Yosef Hatzaddik.
In a generation of heresy and belief in power originating from anyone other than Hashem, he was able to abide by “tamim tihiyeh im Hashem” — simple belief and trust in our Omnipotent L-rd. Noach was truly a tzaddik and tamim in the generations that were not — a great man who became great in spite of his environment.
We, too, must resist the winds of society and fashion, which change the nature of the assault on Torah principles. Should we remain true to Torah, we too can achieve the descriptions “just and perfect” in our generation.