Friday, October 12, 2018

Doing Good

This week we read the story about Noah and the flood. The portion opens with the words: “This is the line of Noah. Noah was a righteous man; he was blameless in his generation; Noah walked with God.” (Genesis 6). Noah’s character is highlighted. He was a pretty remarkable guy. He was righteous. He was blameless. He walked with God. This must be why God called him and commanded him to build the ark.

“The Lord told Noah, there's gonna be a floody, floody. The Lord told Noah, there's gonna be a floody, floody. Get those children out of the muddy, muddy, children of the Lord…”.

Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhak, more commonly known as Rashi, who lived in 11th century France, and wrote a line by line commentary on the entire Bible, as well as a commentary on the Talmud, asked, “Why does the Torah add the words ‘in his generation?’” It is an interesting question. Are not righteous and blameless objective terms? Rashi offers the following clarification:
Some of our Rabbis explain “in his generation” to Noah’s credit: he was righteous even in his generation; it follows that had he lived in a generation of righteous people he would have been even more righteous owing to the force of his good example. Others, however, explain it to his discredit: in comparison with his own generation he was accounted righteous, but had he lived in the generation of Abraham he would have been accounted as of no importance.
It is a fascinating insight. Was Noah deemed righteous and blameless only in comparison to the evil and lawless generation in which he lived? Or would he be called righteous and blameless in any generation? Could he stand next to Abraham? Or had he lived among the greatest of our ancestors would he have been a nobody? I wonder.

Is doing good a matter of comparison? Or can we determine some objective measure of what it means to do good?

I think of those who helped Jews survive the Holocaust. Some did little more than offer a potato to a fleeing Jew. Even such a small act was heroic. The Nazis shot and killed people for doing far less. We would easily call such a person righteous.

Once, when walking along the streets of New York, a homeless man approached me and begged for food. I went with him to a nearby bagel store and bought him a coffee and bagel. We spoke briefly.

Two similar acts. One heroic. The other quite ordinary, although perhaps unusual. The difference is of course the context. The evil surrounding the first transforms the gift of a potato into an act of courage, heroism and righteousness.

Righteousness depends entirely on the generation in which we find ourselves.

And that leads me to a prayer. May we never know such times. May our days be so ordinary that they only demand of us simple and ordinary acts of kindness.

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