Noah was a righteous man in his generation and God walked with Noah.
–Genesis 6.9 (Parashat Noah)
Why does the Torah engage in this case of moral equivalency? For his time, the Torah state, Noah was a righteous person. But as the great Jewish commentator Rashi tells us, if Noah had lived in the time of Abraham, he would not be considered righteous.
So Noah’s time must have been pretty awful. Without a given Torah to guide him, without a given set of rules to govern the world, without any checks on human behavior, the people of earth, 10 generations removed from Adam and Eve, had descended into wanton lawlessness and licentiousness. Violence, physical and sexual, gripped the world. And God had had enough; God wanted to start creation over again with Noah and his family.
We all know the story of the Flood and the Second Creation. We’ll skip it for now. But look again at this first verse from the Parashah, for his time, Noah was a righteous man.
So how did he do it? How was he righteous? Looking a bit further into this chapter, Noah was 600 years old when the Flood was unleashed. So (can you imagine?) Noah attempted to be righteous for about 600 years before God called him to build the Ark. That’s a long time to try to do the right thing when everyone around you is violent, sexually predatory and God-negating. Without a written text, Noah attempted to figure out the right path on his own – and God rewarded Noah for his efforts by saving him and his family during the Flood.
Today, we have both written and unwritten codes of behavior. A written law, for example, is never to rape a woman. But the unwritten code, which today is becoming just as powerful due to almost daily revelations of predatory behavior, is that it is also wrong for a person to bully, coerce or even think of engaging in misogynistic behavior. This new unwritten code is not due to some Divine intervention or benighted Congressmen, far from it. Instead, it is a recognition that men and women alike have to treat women as fellow – and equal – creations of God.
Noah’s true success was transcending the lawlessness of his time and, even when there was no law telling him how to behave, he still acted in the way that God wanted him to behave. In our time, this means that we have to design, lead and follow an unwritten moral code that is life-affirming and treats all people as created in the Divine Image and therefore deserving of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” This is hard, especially when we are with trusted friends and family who may not aspire to the same level of holiness as we do.
Or, to put it another way, we can follow the dictum of Hillel, the leader of the Judean Jewish community in the 1st Century, BCE:
In a world where where are no righteous people, strive to be righteous.
Rabbi Jordan Parr is the spiritual leader of Temple Beth El in Odessa, TX and an adjunct Professor of Jewish Studies at the University of North Texas in Denton, TX. The opinions expressed here are his own. To contact Rabbi Parr, please email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.