T.B. Sanhedrin 108a presents the famous machloket, disagreement, between Rabbi Yochanan and Reish Lakish regarding how we should view Noach. Bereishit 6:9 states that Noach was “perfect in his generations.” The former states that this verse is informing us that, only with consideration for his time period, is Noach to be considered perfect; in other generations, i.e. time periods with other righteous figures, he would not be so considered. In response, the latter states that if Noach was righteous in his time, how much more so would he be righteous in other generations?1 Mizrachi points out that, in terms of the actual being of Noach, there really is no disagreement between Rabbi Yochanan and Reish Lakish. Both agree that Noach’s level of righteousness, while distinctive in the generation of the Flood, would, at this level, not distinguish him in a generation with other righteous individuals. And, Mizrachi adds, both would have to agree that environment plays a role in the development of an individual so it is obvious that, if Noach would have lived in another generation, with righteous people, he would have been better. The question thus emerges: what exactly is the point of disagreement?
Within this context, Rashi, Bereishit 6:9 actually adds an important element to our understanding of this disagreement.2 The focus of Rashi’s words is that, according to Reish Lakish, the verse is mentioning Noach’s righteousness in his generations with the intent to further praise him. Rabbi Yochanan contends the opposite, that the verse’s objective is to somewhat tarnish him. The issue is thus the intent of the verse. Why does the Torah mention that Noach was “perfect in his generations”? For Reish Lakish, it was to praise him; for Rabbi Yochanan, it was to disgrace him.
The reality is that whenever a person is praised for the fine work he/she did given the circumstances, praise and criticism is inherently embedded in the statement. The actual accomplishment is not inherently praiseworthy; the actual accomplishment is, in itself, being critiqued. It is only in the context of the situation that praise is forthcoming; a positive response flows solely from the recognition of the challenge. This would seem to be the basis of this disagreement. Rabbi Yochanan is stating that we should focus on the actual accomplishment, i.e. Noach’s actual standing. Reish Lakish is stating that we should focus on the challenge Noach faced in even achieving the standing that he did achieve. Both yardsticks actually have value. The question that bothers many commentators, though, is: why does Rabbi Yochanan take this more negative approach? The reference to Noach’s generations could have a positive or negative spin, why does Rabbi Yochanan take the negative one? As Iyun Yaakov, Sanhedrin 108a poses the question, if it is possible to understand this verse in a more positive sense, are we not obligated, by the words of Avot 1:6, to judge people in a favourable manner? Some commentators attempt to answer this question through textual analysis. They contend that there is something in the text that forces Rabbi Yochanan to read the verse as discrediting Noach. Others attempt to answer this question through an examination of Noach’s failing. There is something in the very persona of Noach that forces Rabbi Yochanan to focus on the objective accomplishment of Noach and to critique him for not accomplishing more.
While one’s weaknesses can often be attributed to one’s environment, the commentators, in response to Rabbi Yochanan’s opinion, point out that there are also weaknesses, within an individual, that are not connected to circumstances. Sometimes we make a mistake simply because we make a mistake. While it is true that Noach accomplished much given the circumstances and clearly would have reached greater levels of righteousness if he had lived in another time, there was still something in Noach’s nature that reflected an inherent weakness without regard to circumstances. This is, according to Rabbi Yochanan, what the verse is informing us: Noach did not accomplish what he could have accomplished, not solely because of the overwhelming negative nature of his environment but also because of an inherent weakness. The challenge, though, that still faces the many commentators who take this approach in explaining Rabbi Yochanan is to explain when a weakness can be defined as the result of an outside environment and when it can be solely defined as emerging internally. This would seem to be a most difficult task as we are, in so many ways, affected by our environment.
Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky, Emet L’Yaakov, Bereishit 6:9 presents a most interesting approach. He contends, as do many commentators, that Noach’s great failure was that he was not able to save other members of his generation. Still, why would this be deemed as reflecting an internal weakness rather than a weakness resulting from the influence of the surroundings? Rav Yaakov explains that clearly Noach tried to positively influence others; he cannot be critiqued for simply not accomplishing his goal. Furthermore, he also cannot be critiqued for failings in manner or comportment for those are clearly influenced by one’s environment. It is a mistake in thought that the verse is critiquing. Noach defined the essential nature of his generation’s evil incorrectly and, thus, he could not influence them for his focus did not truly challenge the generation’s core motivations. This mistake arose solely from Noach’s internal weakness in thought – a mistake for which Noach was deemed to be responsible.
Weaknesses in thought may not necessarily reflect weaknesses in righteousness. Nevertheless, doing the right thing is dependent upon a correct description of what is the right thing. Our ability to act righteously and even our determination of what is correct can be greatly affected by our surroundings. Our analysis of situations, though, can often be separated from the influences of our environment. In this matter Noach could be viewed apart from his generation and thus any weakness could be highlighted. Are there other legitimate reasons for why our thought processes may be lacking and, thus, for why we may not be responsible for intellectual errors? Yes, but nonetheless we must recognize that our righteousness is dependent upon a correct, thoughtful consideration of what is right. In this regard, we cannot be complacent. We must constantly accept the challenge to scrutinize and analyze our own thoughts.
1 For a further discussion of the substantive issue that is being raised by this gemara, i.e. the role environment should play in our evaluation of individuals, see Nishma Insight 5757-02: The Standard of Self: Objectivity and Circumstance.
2 It should be noted, as Torah Shelaima, Bereishit 6:9, note 138 points out, that there are actually many midrashim that present this disagreement, sometimes in the name of other Sages, with some presenting Rashi’s focus.