years psychologists have debated the impact of the environment
(nurture) on the development of human beings. Can man be
inherently changed by exposure to his surrounding? Or does
mans environment act as a mechanism that helps reveal
his latent nature? Jewish teachings abound with admonitions regarding
the importance of the surroundings we choose. Maimonidies
goes so far as to rule that if ones environment is not conducive
to the observance of Torah one must move to a "better neighborhood". If that does not work one is duty bound to move to a desert to escape the corrupting influences of that society. Yet perhaps there are some who can actually
change society about them making the environment better
for all. Should we run away from a corrupting society or
must we stay and fight, risking our moral fabric to improve
the lot of others? It would appear that these issues were
the subject of debate amongst the rabbis in analyzing the
character of Noach.
These are the chronicles of Noach: Noah was a righteous man, faultless in his generations" (6:9). The phrase "in his generations is the subject of a famous rabbinical dispute. One group of sages viewed this is as a compliment to Noach. If he could remain righteous in his generation, a generation where "the world was corrupt before G-d, and the land was filled with crime
all flesh had ed its ways on the earth" (6:11-12) just think what heights he could have reached had their been other people like him around. Others of our sages however viewed this phrase in a somewhat negative light. Yes Noach was a great man, but only as compared to the people of his generation. Compared to, lets say an Abraham he would not even merit honorable mention.
Why, we must ask, would many of our rabbis paint Noach is such a negative light? After all G-d Himself testified to his righteousness. In comparing Noach to Abraham one thing is clear. Noach withdrew from society fearing he was not capable of standing firm against its immoral onslaught. Thus it is no surprise he was saved by building an ark, which may protect one against outside forces but offers no benefit to those on the outside. The Bible records no attempts by Noach at trying to improve the ways of his generation, or pleading with G-d so as to avert their awaited fate. Abraham on the other hand tried to bring the message of monotheism to the world and prayed for the welfare of those whose ways were no less evil than those of the flood. Who knows what could have happened if Noach had attempted the approach of Abraham. Perhaps the flood could have been averted.
Maybe though Noach was right. Sometimes the only way to save yourself is to withdraw from society. One can not always save the world. Despite Abrahams best efforts Sedom had to be destroyed. In fact there is no evidence in the Chumash that Abraham actually succeeded in converting many from their ways. One needs look no further than his own children (save Yitzchak). Yet just because success is denied does that mean one stops trying?
The debate on how best to interact (or withdraw) from a morally corrupt society continues unabated with no clear right answer. Both approaches have their place depending on the time, place, society and personality of the person involved. For some withdrawal from society is the only way they can preserve their Judaism. They are following in the footsteps of Noach, a righteous man. For others the challenges of society pose no threat to their religious behavior. In fact it may even strengthen their practice as they see both the need for Torah and are forced to defend their way of life. These people are following in the ways of Abraham, the first Jew. Shabbat Shalom!