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Who are the people in your neighborhood?

Posted on ד׳ במרחשון ה׳תש״ע (October 22, 2009) | in Noach | by

This week’s parsha starts with the famous description of Noah (Bereishit 6:9):

אֵלֶּה, תּוֹלְדֹת נֹחַ–נֹחַ אִישׁ צַדִּיק תָּמִים הָיָה, בְּדֹרֹתָיו: אֶת-הָאֱלֹהִים, הִתְהַלֶּךְ-נֹחַ

These are the generations of Noah. Noah was in his generations a man righteous and whole-hearted; Noah walked with God.

Rashi notes that the word בְּדֹרֹתָיו (“in his generation”) at the end of the first clause does not seem to add anything important to the meaning of the verse.

בדורותיו: יש מרבותינו דורשים אותו לשבח, כל שכן שאלו היה בדור צדיקים היה צדיק יותר, ויש שדורשים אותו לגנאי, לפי דורו היה צדיק, ואלו היה בדורו של אברהם לא היה נחשב לכלום:

Some of our Sages interpret the word בְּדֹרֹתָיו in Noah’s favor and note how much more righteous he would have been if he had lived in a generation of righteous people. Other Sages interpret the phrase derogatorily by explaining that in comparison with Noah’s own generation he was considered righteous, but if he had lived in Abraham’s generation, he would not have been considered of any importance. [Sanh. 108a, Gen. Rabbah 30:9, Tan. Noach 5]

What is most interesting about Rashi’s comment is that even those Sages who explain בְּדֹרֹתָיו to be a statement of praise still admit that Noah was influenced by societal pressure. The Sages are saying “Look how great Noah managed to become while fighting off the influence of all the negativity surrounding him. Imagine how much greater he could have been in a holier generation!”

This idea is expressed and elaborated on in Pirkei Avot, 2:9 and 2:10:

איזו היא דרך טובה שידבק בה האדם…רבי יהושוע אומר, חבר טוב; רבי יוסי אומר, שכן טוב;

Go and see which what path a man should adhere to…Rabbi Yehoshua said, [seek out] a good friend. Rabbi Yosi said, [seek out] a good neighbor…

Rav Ovadia Bartenura explains the importance of Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Yosi’s advice. A good friend is one who constructively criticizes you when you do something wrong; real friends expect the best out of us and make us into better people because of their positive expectations.  Likewise, good neighbor pressure us to be better people by setting standards of honesty, kindness, and fair-dealing for our communities.  In Judaism, the idea of “living up to the Joneses” is a positive one when the Joneses are the sorts of people that lead exemplary lives.

Rabbi Pinhas Kehati, in his commentary on this same Mishna, explains the Rabbis words differently. He says that “good friend” means being a good friend while “good neighbor” means being a good neighbor.  He takes Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Yosi’s advice and turns it on its head to teach us a parallel lesson, equally true and equally relevant to our quest for betterment.  Rabbi Kehati teaches us that it is important to seek out good friends and neighbors to influence us positively, but we must not forget that we too must be positive influences on our world.  In this way we can succeed in constantly elevating both ourselves, our communities, and our surroundings.

The lesson of the ark, is now made clearer. There are times when things around us are so bad and so negative that we need to isolate ourselves from those outside influences. We need to recognize that now, like Noah’s retreat into the ark, we must close our doors in order to weather the storm. These are the times where outside influences are too strong for us to handle and we need to look after our own spiritual well being.

Yet, there are times when the converse is true and we need to send forward gestures of peace instead. We need to learn not from Noah’s retreat into the ark, but from the dove bearing the olive branch; thus we take the first step out of the ark and make sure that we are a positive influence to those around us while always ensuring that our friends and neighbors positively influence us as well.

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