Noah and Truly Righteous tzadiks
By Avi Lazerson
Noah, the Torah tells us, was a tzadik. A tzadik is a righteous man. Only he and his family were saved from the destruction of the flood because in his generation he was found to be righteous. Yet we find that after his seeing the decadent behavior of his contemporaries, seeing how such immoral behavior caused them all to be destroyed, we find that one of the first things that Noah does after the floodwaters rescind is to plant a vineyard and promptly get good and drunk.
He was so drunk, in fact, that the Torah relates that he was lying in his tent in an embarrassing and exposed position. His youngest son, Ham, saw him in his gross disgrace and related it to his brothers Shem and Yefet. They promptly put a blanket on their shoulders and tip toed backwards in to their father's tent and dropped the blanket on their drunken father to cover his nakedness.
When Noah woke up, he realized that his youngest son Ham had seen his nakedness and had told the others about it. Noah promptly cursed him out by declaring that Ham's son Canaan should be a slave to slaves. Realize now that this was his own grandson, and to curse a person to be a slave is horrifying, but to curse him that he should be the slave to slaves is doubly disturbing.
Now for an average man to curse out his son for doing something wrong is obviously not a proper action. A proper father should seek the betterment of his son. To curse one's grandson, who in no way participated in the wrong action seems terribly out of place. Why punish your own grandson, who is not involved in any improper action for the poor actions of the father? A proper father should bless the grandson that he be a better individual.
How much more so with a tzadik! He should never do such a gross action as cursing someone, how much more so his own family! If a tzadik possesses some miraculous power that his curse would work, should it not be fitting that a tzadik give a blessing that a person would overcome his bad behavior patterns? How much more unlikely is it that a tzadik would certainly not curse out his own grandson, who had nothing to do with the actions of his father!
So our question is: why and how could Noah curse out his own grandson?
Rashi in his commentary on the Torah points out that the rabbis argue over the merits of Noah. Some rabbis said that had he lived in the generation of Abraham he would have been a greater tzadik; other rabbis felt that if he lived in the generation of Abraham he would not be considered a tzadik at all! We see from this discussion that Noah was not a tzadik in essence or in absolute terms, but rather a tzadik in comparison. A tzadik in essence is one of the few truly righteous men who completely rule over their evil impulses and have converted their basic base desires and instincts to serve G-d. A tzadik in comparison is one who is more righteous than his neighbor is, but not necessarily a truly righteous person. It is only that by comparison to the people in his surroundings he appears to be virtuous.
In comparison to the people in his generation, Noah was a tzadik. They were a generation of depraved people and Noah remained straight and G-d fearing. Therefore by comparison he is considered a tzadik. However this does not mean that he was a tzadik in essence, but rather a tzadik in comparison. Consequently in addition to having good aspects in his character, he also had character traits that were not meeting the level of perfection of that of a perfect tzadik. Because of this he could get drunk, lay naked and curse out his innocent grandson.
If Noah, whom G-d Himself calls a tzadik can make mistakes, how much more so us. We certainly are not on any level of righteousness. Perhaps in our surroundings we may 'look' righteous, but if we were in surroundings of better people we would look shallow.
Realizing this, it is important to always to strive to be a better person. Even if your neighbors or co-workers or friends consider you to be a truly fine and good person, we must realize that we are only good in comparison. We have much work to do on ourselves.
It is a rare person who can achieve the level of the true tzadik. We must realize that we have much work to do even if we are praised for our character.
from the November 2007 Edition of the Jewish Magazine