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Save Yourself?

There is a Yiddish expression, tzaddik im peltz, meaning a righteous person in a fur coat. It is a curious phrase.

The great Hasidic rabbi, Menahem Mendl of Kotzk, offers an illustration. When one is cold at home, there are two ways to become warm. One can heat the home or get dressed in a fur coat. The difference between the two is that in the first case the entire house is warmed and everyone sitting in it feels comfortable. Whereas in the second case only the person wearing the coat feels warm, but everyone else continues to freeze.

Righteousness is meant to warm others. It is not meant to warm the soul of the person who performs the righteous deeds. Too often people clothe themselves in good deeds. They hold their heads high and wrap themselves in comforting thoughts. “Look at the good I have done.” They warm themselves in a coat of righteousness.

The task, however, is to build a fire. We are called to bring warmth and healing to others.

A coat of righteousness does no good unless it is wrapped around others.

The Torah relates: “Noah was a righteous man; he was blameless in his age; and Noah walked with God.” (Genesis 6)

God informs Noah that the world, and all its inhabitants, will be destroyed because of its wickedness. So God instructs Noah to build an ark to save two animals of every species as well as his own family. I am left wondering. There is no another righteous person in the world? Noah was the only one?

Apparently Noah agrees with this evaluation. The world is about to be destroyed and Noah offers no argument. He offers no protest. Perhaps he does believe he is indeed the only righteous person in the world.

So God says, “Noah, save yourself.”

And now Noah appears to me as a tzaddik im peltz. The rabbis attempt to suggest that he really builds fires. They suggest Noah takes his time building the ark. He makes sure to do the building where everyone can see the project. The ark was meant not so much to save his family and all the animals but instead as a sign. People were meant to see the ark and repent of their evil ways. But they of course ignore the sign and continue with their lives as if nothing is wrong.

And we continue to walk amid all the signs, amid the fires and floods. We look away from the signs of our potential destruction. We wrap ourselves in fur coats, warming ourselves and proclaiming our righteousness, but doing little more than Noah. We build an ark for ourselves and our families.

I wish to be more than a tzaddik im peltz.