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October 8, 2021 - Parashat Noah 5782

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Two Understandings of Leadership – A Tightrope We All Walk
A D’var Torah for Parashat Noah
By Rabbi Jeffrey Segelman

Every time I write or speak about parshat Noah, I am determined to get past the first verse and find a d’var Torah somewhere in the remaining 152 verses. Sometimes I am successful. Today, not so much. I apologize for the focus on the very famous midrash which many of you know well. But hopefully, I will be able to frame it differently and expand on it just a bit.

The first verse of the parsha reads: “These are the generations of Noah, Noah was ‘tzaddik tamim’ in his generation” (Gen. 6:9). Of course, the words that raise the red flag are ‘in his generation.’

To quote Rashi, “There are those among the Rabbis who expound these words as praise, that is, if Noah could be a tzaddik in such an evil environment, how much more of a tzaddik would he have been if he had been surrounded by good people. And there are those who expound it as an insult, that is, according to the standards of his generation, he was a tzaddik, but had he been in the generation of Abraham, he would not have been anyone of significance.” (Rashi is quoting from Genesis Rabbah 30:9)

It seems to me that those who interpreted “in his generations” as an insult, were correct.  Some say this is the case because unlike Abraham, Noah did not argue with God to save the world. In yiddish, Noah is known by the expression “a tzaddik in peltz.” Peltz means ‘fur’. The idea is that when it is cold, one can put on a (fur) coat or one can light a fire. The difference between them is that if you put on a coat, you are warm. But if you light a fire, everyone can be warm. Abraham lit the fire. Noah was a tzaddik in peltz.

That is beautiful Torah and a lesson worthy of repeating each year. However, I would like to come at it a bit differently.

Rashi is suggesting that Noah’s greatness was determined through a comparison of relative relationships. Compared to his contemporaries, he was wonderful. Compared to Abraham, he was not. How can we know which one was true of Noah?

We can learn from the story itself. Noah had two missions. First, he had to save lives. Second, he had to rebuild the world. The first mission he accomplished well and he gave thanks to God. As for the second mission, Noah failed miserably.  He was supposed to rebuild humanity, yet the story demonstrates that he had no interest in procreation. The midrash (Genesis Rabbah 31:12) observes that while the humans boarded the ark men and women separately (so as to abstain from relations during the flood), they were told by God to leave the ark in couples (so as to renew relations). Yet Noah led them out, still separated by gender. No desire, it seems, to have more children.

The Torah hints that Noah’s status was diminished. No longer called a tzaddik, he is called an ish ha’adamah, a man of the land. (see Rashi on 9:20). And while the world was saved, it quickly headed back into a downward spiral. Noah could save the world from the threat of the moment, but he could not rebuild it.

Why? Because Noah was no longer a tzaddik. It must have been that he was a tzaddik only when compared to the people around him. As such a tzaddik, he was worthy to save the world. But that was all. He could not rebuild after the flood, because after the flood, there was no one else there. And once there was no one to whom he could be compared, Noah was no longer a tzaddik.

Rashi offers an important lesson for all of us in the AJR community. As we train and as we serve our communities as clergy and as lay leaders, from what vantage point do we see our own leadership? Are we leaders because, compared to the people around us, we are more knowledgeable, more observant and/or more committed? For the most part, the answer is yes. And yet. The parasha is telling us that such a view of Jewish leadership will only take us so far.

Our Rashi suggests that the highest form of leadership is one which is determined not by comparison to the community, but by comparison to Abraham. We will be leaders with vision and courage to build the world only when we see ourselves wearing the mantle of leadership passed down to us by our greatest teachers and placed on our shoulders by our mentors and exemplars. True leadership is driven not by staying one step ahead of those around us. Rather, it is struggling mightily to live up to the example of Abraham.

In truth, for us this is a tightrope. On the one hand, we have to be leaders like Noah who see ourselves relative to our communities. That is how we build the arks and effectively role model behavior. And yes, we can feel good about ourselves and successes and accomplishments. But if we will be the best leaders, it will come only when we take some time to turn our focus away from the people around us, and turn it to Abraham and realize that it is only when we compare ourselves to the great spiritual visionaries, and strive to live up to them, that we will have the wherewithal to build the world.

Shabbat Shalom
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Rabbi Jeffrey Segelman is Director of Fieldwork and a lecturer in Professional Skills at AJR. He is also the rabbi emeritus of the Westchester Jewish Center.