The tisch: The ultimate righteous person

Once God instructed Noah to build the ark – a project that lasted 120 years!

‘THE BUILDING of Noah’s Ark’ by a 17th-century French painter. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
‘THE BUILDING of Noah’s Ark’ by a 17th-century French painter.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Noah was undoubtedly a righteous person, though the issue of how to gauge his piety has been a matter of long-standing debate. Was Noah only righteous compared to the wicked people around him? If so, had Noah lived with really righteous people, would he have been just a regular guy? Or perhaps Noah was objectively righteous, in spite of his difficult surroundings? If so, had Noah lived with other righteous people in an environment conducive to piety, perhaps his spiritual achievements would have outshone his counterparts? Textually, the issue turns on the opening verse of the Flood account, where Noah is described as a righteous person “in his generations” (Genesis 6:9) – should this be read as “only in his generations,” or “even in his generations?”
In that same verse, Noah is introduced as a tzadik (righteous person) who is tamim (blameless, complete, without blemish). Yet only a few verses later, God commands Noah to build an ark and explains why Noah was chosen for the task: “For I have seen you as righteous before Me in this generation” (Genesis 7:1) – in this second mention of Noah’s virtue, he is no longer called a righteous person who is tamim. What is to be made of this slight change?
The great French Bible commentator Rashi (1040-1105) – paraphrasing a passage in the Babylonian Talmud (Eruvin 18b) – explained that the difference lies in the context. When depicting Noah, the narrative offers a full description of his qualities as a righteous person: he was the complete package. But when God addressed Noah directly, not everything was said. From here we learn that in a person’s presence we only mention part of that person’s praise, but in that person’s absence we may give an unbridled account.
The hassidic master Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Halevi Epstein of Krakow (1751-1823) offered a different – somewhat unexpected – reading. Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman was perhaps the first hassidic master to serve in a major city. His is often referred to by the title of his posthumously published Maor Vashamesh (Breslau, 1842) – a volume recognized today as a classic work of hassidic thought.
Returning to the slight change in the biblical narrative: The Maor VaShamesh explained that the Torah is suggesting two types of righteous people – a person who is a tzadik tamim and a person who is just a tzadik.
A tzadik tamim is constantly involved in spiritual pursuits: studying Torah, praying, and doing worthy deeds. This complete righteous person is uncomplicated; in some senses he is pure, simple, or even naive. In contrast, a person who is just a tzadik is also connected to his spiritual mission at all times, but he is more savvy to the ebb and flow of life.
Which type of righteous person is a greater achievement?
At first blush, we would laud the tzadik tamim as being the ultimate righteous person, but here the Maor Vashamesh offers a surprising twist. The tzadik tamim is without blemish to a fault: such a person cannot truly connect to regular people and the daily challenges they encounter. Moreover, the tzadik tamim is afraid lest the vicissitudes of other people’s lives distract him from his own spiritual path.
Such a righteous person does not have the capacity to interact with others; he cannot help others along their spiritual journeys.
The person who is just a tzadik is ideally suited to the challenge of connecting with other people; he knows how to find his place as an active member of society. While this person constantly cleaves to the Almighty and strives to fulfill his own mission in life, he need not insulate himself from the world around him. This tzadik cannot be considered tamim, because he must shrewdly navigate society in all its fullness: encountering unsavory situations and interacting with wicked people. This tzadik strives to enjoy the spiritual fruit of this world, while conscientiously casting away the rind.
Returning to Noah: The Maor Vashamesh explained that Noah was originally a tzadik tamim, a righteous person who was a loner. Once God instructed Noah to build the ark – a project that lasted 120 years! – perforce, Noah came into contact with a wider population. He was compelled to abandon his pure, childlike, religious naivety. He came face-to-face with people who asked him about his strange project, and he was driven to justify his grand undertaking. He could no longer be the lone tzadik tamim; now, Noah had to face the world.
Whereas the classic explanation saw the tzadik tamim as the ultimate compliment, the Maor VaShamesh inverted the reading. To be sure, being a tzadik tamim is a grand achievement, but in this world there is something loftier than being a righteous person without blemish. That is, being a righteous person – blemishes and all – who knows how to connect with people; who interacts with society; who knows how to assist others on their own spiritual journey.
The writer, a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah, is on the Pardes faculty and a post-doctoral fellow at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev