How can we be found righteous?

By Rabbi Jim Bennett

It never worked when we were children: “Don’t be mad, Mom and Dad. Everyone else is doing it, too.” They always managed to remind us: “You’re not everyone else. You’re OUR children, and we expect more from you than we expect from everyone else.”

The Torah tells us that “Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation.” The well-known rabbinic debate, however, struggles to explain just what this meant. Was Noah righteous only by comparison to the wicked generation in which he lived, or was he righteous in spite of the evil that surrounded him? In the first case, Noah was simply the least bad choice. In the second case, he was a rose among thorns.

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The challenge, of course, is not simply to understand Noah, but to understand ourselves. Who are we, and what do we wish to be? As children, we may have tried to get away with what we knew was wrong by arguing that everyone else was equally wrong or worse. As adults, we know better, or at least we should. Claiming that our behavior is acceptable simply because we are better than those around us is not good enough. Like Noah, we must strive to live our lives in a way that we know is good. We ought not to claim that our behavior, that we know is otherwise wrong, is somehow made right by the circumstances in which we find ourselves.

This is difficult, of course, and at times, almost impossible. The disaster we observed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina is a case in point. As looters appeared in the New Orleans chaos, many argued as to the legitimacy of stealing to save one’s life. If the difference between starving to death or not depended upon taking food and drink from an abandoned store, some suggested, then stealing was acceptable. In this view, those who stole food, water, diapers and medicine alone were more righteous than those who stole televisions, guns and furniture. So some looters, like Noah, must have been righteous in their own generation — more so than others. By the same measure, then, we might conclude that those who chose not to steal were still more righteous, for they maintained their conviction that stealing is wrong even in the midst of the wrongdoing that swirled around them.

Such challenges abound, not merely in the midst of disasters. Every day we are faced with choices — to do good or to do evil, to choose blessing or curse, life or death. “Just because everyone else is doing it” is not good enough. Will we rise to the challenge and be deemed righteous in our generation? The answer is in our hands.

Rabbi Jim Bennett of Congregation Shaare Emeth prepared the commentary on this week’s Torah portion.