This Shabbos we read Parshas Noach. The Parsha describes the life of Noach, and the episode of the flood that destroyed all of humanity except for Noach and his family. When the Torah describes Noach to us, the Torah says that Noach was a tzadik tamim, a totally righteous person, in his generation. Our Sages ask a simple question – obviously every person lives in his or her own generation. Why does the Torah have to tell us that Noach was a righteous person in his generation?
The answer, the Sages tell us, is that the Torah is coming to say that Noach was righteous in his generation – but would have been different in another generation. What would he have been in another generation? One approach suggested in the Talmud is that Noach was special even in his generation. Despite the bad influences that were showered upon him by everyone else in his time, he remained totally righteous. Certainly in another generation he would have even been a greater tzadik, a more righteous individual. The other approach suggested by our Sages is just the opposite. Only in his generation, where there where some many wicked people, was Noach considered so righteous. If he would have lived in a better generation, he would not have stood out so much, and would not have been considered so special.
The question is posed, why would anyone want to put down Noach? If we have a choice to say something good about him or something bad, why would anyone say it in a bad way?
A beautiful thought is offered by the commentators. They explain that really both opinions are true. The Torah wants to teach us by using this word that is understood in twp totally different ways, the strong power of influence that society has upon us. If we want to measure what level of perfection Noach attained in reality, we must say that he did not attain the level that others attained in better generations. The constant struggle to combat the influences of his surroundings, to overcome the effects of his society, took a toll on him. Thus we say the level he actually attained was only so special in his generation. However, if we measure the amount of energy that he expended to become what he did, to overcome those influences that sought to bring him down, they were extraordinary. Such energy, in a better generation, would have made Noach into an even greater tzadik, an even more special person. This, in another generation, expending the energy that he did, he would have been even greater.
The lesson both thoughts are teaching us is how much we have to be aware of the power that society and our surroundings have upon us. As we seek to grow and to become better people, we have to make sure not to let ourselves be brought down by the influence that our surroundings shower upon us.