Toward a Not-So-Separate Peace
by Miri Korbman
The story of the flood is one of the most widely known biblical tales. Merely ten generations after creation, the world begins to engage in behavior that renders them unfit for inhabiting it, and God seeks to destroy every last man, woman, child, and creature – except for one: Noach. What protects Noach from God’s wrath? What is so special about him that he and his family merit to be spared from the fateful flood?
At first glance, the Torah’s own description of Noach seems to silence all questions about his worthiness. The pasuk (6:9) states, “Noach ish tzadik,” Noach was a righteous man – certainly he deserved to be saved! And yet, the pasuk continues, “tamim haya b’dorosav,” “[he was] perfect in his generation.” Rashi (6:9) explains this to mean that compared to the people of his generation, Noach was righteous, but had he been living in a generation of righteous people, “lo haya nechshav liklum,”- he would be of no consideration! This description of Noach only intensifies our question: was Noach a Tzadik, righteous and worthy of being saved for his own innate characteristics and qualities, or was he simply in the right place at the right time?
The grievous and devastating sin of Noach’s generation was that of “chamas” (6:11), widespread robbery, stealing, and kidnapping. In his Sefer Sifsei Chaim (Midos V’Avodas Hashem 2), Rav Chaim Friedlander explains that the root of this sin is jealousy, comparing oneself constantly to others, desiring what they have, becoming blind to what you yourself possess. It comes from a pervasive dissatisfaction, a constant unease and sense of lack, of deficiency, looking always at the greener grass, the other side of the fence, and stopping at nothing to take that which you think will make you happier. It is not just the act of stealing that spoils a generation, a population, a universe – it is the insidious, ubiquitous feeling of anxiety and inadequacy, the constant drive for what is just out of reach, which inherently leads to all manner of sin beyond theft, including adultery and murder. It is the disease wrought by a total lack of peace of mind, a complete absence of Menuchas HaNefesh.
The Sifsei Chaim notes that the root of Noach’s name is the same as “menucha,” peace, because Noach’s name is a reference to his central middah, that of Menuchas HaNefesh, which was innate to him. Noach possessed this critical quality of inner peace. He did not look left or right – he did not compare himself to his neighbors, he did not measure his worth against theirs or take stock of his possessions in comparison to theirs. Noach was at peace with what he had. He was focused inward, on his own deeds, his own family, his own life, growth, purpose, meaning, and livelihood. And this ultimately saved him from the scourge that befell his generation due largely to their rampant jealousy, dissatisfaction, and resulting corruption.
The trait of Menucha made Noach a Tzadik. And yet, he is called a Tzadik “b'dorosav,” in his generation, and Rashi sharply notes that he would hardly be noteworthy in another generation. What does this mean about Noach’s true character?
Rav Chaim Shmulevitz, in his sefer Sichos Mussar, notes that while Noach’s separation from his generation and his resulting inner peace allowed him to demonstrate greater righteousness initially, ultimately also led to his inaction when it came to trying to save the rest of his neighbors. Chazal tell us that Hashem (Yishayahu 54:9) refers to the Mabul as “the waters of Noach,” attributing some of the responsibility to Noach, because Noach did not pray adequately for the salvation of the whole generation. Furthermore, Rashi (Breishis 6:14) notes that Noach spent 120 years building the ark in order that the people would see his construction and ask him about it, providing him the opportunity to be Mikarev them, so to speak, and to save them from their fate by helping them change their ways - and yet, it seems he did not succeed.
It is apparent that Noach had a tremendous gift, that of his natural proclivity for inner peace. Many of us may know – or may be – individuals such as Noach, who shy away from social comparison, who are inwardly focused, easily satisfied, rarely jealous of others. And yet, being internally preoccupied can actually blind a person to others in a negative way. Noach’s one shortcoming, so to speak, as evidenced by the Torah’s description of him as righteous “within his generation,” was his failure to share this gift with others.
It is critically important to have blinders on, to not look left or right, to be “inconsiderate” of others, when it comes to social comparison. Anxiety feeds off of our constant scrutiny of others’ lives, and jealousy is one of anxiety’s closest cousins. Peace of mind is found, therefore, in the radical and complete acceptance of what is, of what we have right now, and in the knowledge – and Bitachon – that that is all there is, and all we truly need. Noach exemplified this, but he had the opportunity to take it one step further, as all of us do. The one time we absolutely must glance over the fence, across the street, or to those sitting beside us, is to ask ourselves: what does my fellow need? It is important to be in a state of inner peace, and it is equally important not to separate ourselves entirely from others and neglect their needs in exchange for that peace.
Thus, the lesson of Noach is (unsurprisingly) a dialectic. We must strive to focus inward, accepting that which we have in order to achieve a state of Menucha, inner peace, which will protect us from jealousy and anxiety. And, at the same time, we must not forget to look around us, to notice the needs of others, and to help them achieve that same state of inner peace, to be there for others and not simply be alone in our grand peace of mind, but to be looking to share that gift and carry others along with us.