Noach: What makes a person great?

Take a moment to think about a person who inspires you, someone who embodies the traits of ‘greatness’. You could be thinking of a political leader or perhaps a family member or friend. Whether their reach and impact is global, local or personal you consider this person to be truly great. My questions is, why? What makes a person great?

Was Noach – the man God saves whilst destroying the corrupt and immoral people of earth in a flood – great? This weeks Torah portion opens by telling us, “Noach was a righteous man; he was blameless in his age,” and that, “Noach walked with God”.

On first reading of this verse the Torah seems particularly complimentary of Noach but as we look closer we see that this description is in fact giving us a much deeper insight into Noach’s behaviour and moral standing.

Describing Noach’s righteousness the Torah states that “he was blameless in his age.” This is quite an unusual phrase because it begs the question, would Noach have been righteous had he been born in a different age? As the famous biblical commentator Rashi points out, “In comparison with his generation he was righteous, but if he had been in Abraham’s generation, he would not have been considered of any importance.”

The next thing the verse goes on to tell us is that “Noach walked with God.” Interestingly the Torah states of Abraham, “[The Lord] before Whom I walked.” What is the difference between walking “with” God and walking “before” God? A Midrash – a rabbinic told story that helps make sense of unusual or complicated verses in scripture – explains that Noach walked “with” the support of God, but Abraham was able to walk righteously by himself.

The above two interpretations can lead us to re-evaluate our understanding of greatness and righteousness. On one level greatness can be measured in our ability to refrain from bad behaviour even when it surrounds us; i.e. a person who refrains from criminal activity when all around him are committing crimes may be considered great. But on a higher level, a person who independently seeks to do acts of social justice and kindness, rather than simply sitting out on bad behaviour, achieves a righteousness that is at the heart of Judaism; being active in making the world a better place.

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Originally published as part of Alyth’s Thought for the Week.

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