Excerpted from Rabbi Aaron Goldscheider’s Torah United: Teachings on the Weekly Parasha from Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, and the Chassidic Masters, co-published by OU Press and Ktav Publishing House
In a world overrun by depravity, violence, and corruption, the Torah introduces Noach as the last righteous man on earth (Genesis 6:9). The Torah continues: “And Noach sired ( ויַוּלֶֹד ) three sons: Shem, Cham, and Yefet” (Genesis 6:10). Rebbe Elimelech of Lizhensk read this verse symbolically in his No’am Elimelech: what are ostensibly three personal names are actually three degrees of spirituality that a tzaddik worthy of the name begets or generates ( ויולד ) in his lifetime. Shem, literally “name,” represents the first degree, fearful obedience and devotion to God that sanctifies His holy Name. Cham, which means “warm,” alludes to Noach’s cultivation of love and closeness towards the Creator. The third and final degree is Yefet, a reflection of the yofi, the “beauty” of one’s pure, perfect service of the Almighty.
Notwithstanding this characterization of Noach as a tzaddik of the highest rank, rabbinic sages throughout the ages have detected certain imperfections in his overall performance. Rebbe Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev drew a memorable distinction between two types of tzaddikim. One serves God with great fervor but is so focused on his own spiritual aspirations that he bears no one else aloft in his ascent. The other serves God and brings others to serve God as well, raising them up with him. Noach is the first type of tzaddik, because the Torah says he “walked with God” in his divine service, meaning he did not “walk with people” to draw them closer to Him.
Chassidim have a characteristically sharp, pithy way of making this point in Yiddish, often attributed to the Kotzker Rebbe. They call Noach a tzaddik im peltz, “a righteous man in a fur coat.” The idea is that there are two ways of keeping warm on a cold night: by wearing insulating layers or by lighting a fire. Don a fur coat and you warm yourself; kindle a fire and you warm others as well. We are supposed to spread warmth and light in our own service of God.
Rebbe Levi Yitzchak himself embodied this beautiful, compelling, and enduring principle of Chassidut, the responsibility to reach out to others and actively draw them closer to the Creator. He was compassionate and gentle, and loved every Jew just as they are. He reportedly said,
If ever I pass away and I have the option of being alone in paradise or going to purgatory in the company of other Jews, I would certainly choose the latter. As long as I am together with other Jews!
Helping others must begin with appreciating them for who they are. The Berditchever was always judging people favorably, as an oft-told story illustrates:
A teamster in Berditchev was saying his morning prayers, and at the same time, was greasing the wheels of his wagon. He was indeed an interesting sight, praying with his grease-covered hands, and townspeople snickered. “Look at this ignoramus. He doesn’t know better than to grease his wagon wheels while he is praying.” The great Rabbi Levi Ytizchak then came along and said, “Master of the Universe, look at your servant, the teamster. Even while he is greasing his wagon wheels he is still praising Your great and holy Name.”
When it comes time to bring people closer to God, which requires correction, Rebbe Levi Yitzchak teaches that we must use pleasant words and display compassion. The key is to see the lofty soul in every Jew and remind them of it: “One says, ‘Every single Jew is of great stature and the Jewish soul is truly hewn from a place above the Throne of Glory. . . . The one who encouragingly reproves the Jewish soul uplifts it higher and higher.’” In the words of a contemporary Chassidic teacher, “Were we to see the image of God in the other, could we ever show anger to another human being?”
Our forefather Avraham exemplified the second, outwardly directed tzaddik, who is determined to view and treat everyone favorably. Among the many rabbinic sources that contrast Noach with Avraham is the following Midrash. Psalms 45:8 states: “You love righteousness and hate wickedness; therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness beyond your fellow.” The Sages read this homiletically as a description of Avraham. Of course, being a moral, God-fearing person Avraham must have loved righteousness and hated wickedness; therefore, the verse is actually telling us that he loved discovering the good in others and hated accusing them on account of their wrongdoing. In this way, his conduct was “beyond” that of his “fellow,” namely, the figure with whom he is naturally compared – Noach.
When the prophet Yeshayahu hearkens back to the incident of the Flood, he rather unexpectedly refers to the episode as “the waters of Noach” (Isaiah 54:9). Based on the Zohar, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik taught that the Flood and Noach are inextricably linked, since, in a certain sense, he was partially responsible for it. He neither prayed to God to spare others nor took the initiative to inspire them to repent. Knowing that he and his family would be saved, he failed to act on behalf of others. Compare this with the conduct of Avraham in Parashat Lech Lecha, where he goes to great lengths to save cities unquestionably filled with evil and malice: “The cry of Sodom and Gomorrah is great and their sin very grievous” (Genesis 18:20). Avraham is filled with mercy and compassion and seeks out the bright spots – righteousness even – in dark dens of wickedness.
The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Chassidut, urges us to consider the teachings of the Torah not as stories from days gone by, but as lessons to be internalized and lived. We are called on to perceive the image of God in our fellow man and be steadfast in our belief that the spark of holiness in every Jew can be made into a fire. It is a profound act of love to pursue the vindication of others and a foremost mitzvah to relentlessly search for virtue in our fellow man.