From Where I Stand
By Rabbi Yossy Goldman
נח איש צדיק . . . בדורותיו
Noach was a righteous man . . . in his generation.
— Bereishis 6:9
Do sermons really work? Can the words of any one individual really have an effect on the way people live their lives? Is anyone out there actually listening? (Reading?) Rabbis are probably unrealistic when they anticipate dramatic results from their sermons. But it’s not as bad as the cynics would have us believe, either. The late Rabbi Sydney Katz of Pretoria once compared the chances of a sermon succeeding to the odds of a man standing on top of the Empire State Building and throwing down an aspirin that would be caught by a man on the street below who just happened to have a headache at the time. But we still try.
The prophet Yeshayah called the Great Flood of this week’s parashah “Waters of Noach.” According to commentary, this is because Noach bore a degree of responsibility for the devastating deluge. But why was it his fault? Wasn’t he the righteous man of his time? Apparently, because Noach may not have tried hard enough to turn around the corrupt lifestyle of his generation, the waters are named after him. Yes, he built his Ark, but did he reach out to those who never saw it? Did he shout out to his contemporaries that doomsday was really coming?
Ever since Noach, this is the mission of anyone charged with the task of being a spiritual leader. What is a rabbi? An “official” to preside over our rites of passage? Sure, that is a very important part of the job, but is that all it is? A functionary? No. The essence of a rabbi is to be a teacher, a guide for life, a moral barometer, and the conscience of the community. The Hebrew word “rabbi” means “my teacher” — one who is supposed to teach Torah and to teach right from wrong based on the G‑dly value system enshrined in the Torah.
So, occasionally it becomes necessary for the rabbi to play preacher and point out the error of a community’s ways. No, it’s not the most popular thing a rabbi can do, but, to quote the late Chief Rabbi L.I. Rabinowitz, “I am not prepared to sacrifice my principles on the altar of popularity.” That’s why the Talmud states that when you see a rabbi who is beloved by the entire community, it is not because he is so good but rather because he does not rebuke them in matters of faith (Kesubos 105).
Speaking for myself, I am not a loner. I’m not anti-social. I like people and would love to be loved by everyone without exception. But there are times when one cannot shirk the moral responsibility to say what is right — and, sometimes, what is wrong.
This brings us back to Noach. Commentary is divided on the extent of Noach’s righteousness. Yes, the Torah calls him a tzaddik, a righteous man. But the title is qualified, when the Torah adds the words “in his generations.” Was he objectively righteous, or only in comparison to his evil generation? How would he have rated when compared to a really saintly man like Avraham? As always, both these perspectives are Torah and therefore true. The full picture can only be ascertained when we look at a thing with both eyes. Are we products of our environment? Is it impossible to resist societal pressures? If so, then any good we manage to do is an incredible achievement and deserving of praise. Or do we have the power to triumph over any and every obstacle in our paths? Look at Avraham, who came from a pagan family, discovered G‑d, and changed the world. Judged by that standard, anything less than greatness is a failure. Which perspective will it be?
I am not unmindful of the wonderful growth in Jewish communities around the world and, indeed, in my own congregation. Who knows better than me of the inspiring new commitments made by so many, especially over yom tov: hundreds of good resolutions for mitzvos — shul attendance, tefillin, mezuzos, Shabbos, kashrus, Torah study, tzedakah, chesed, and more. In a world gone mad, we are doing fantastic good. But from time to time we need to look from the other perspective as well. How are we doing compared to Avraham? Compared to what we could be?
The philosopher Herman Cohen was once asked why his lectures were so deep and “over the heads” of most of his audience. He answered, “I aim where their heads should be.” Well, I aim where your hearts should be, where your souls should be. I fully appreciate where my people are at, but I refuse to lose sight of where they should be going. That is my purpose, my sacred responsibility, and my dream.
I dream about the neshamah, the G‑dly soul within each of you. You say, “Rabbi, we are ordinary guys.” I say no Jew is ordinary. Every Jew is special. I know what you are doing, and I am proud of you for it. But I also know what you are capable of, so don’t sell yourself short. Please, don’t shatter the dream. If we stop dreaming, we stop hoping, and we stop living. Every Jew is wonderful.
Every Jew is a good Jew. But for me the definition of a good Jew has always been one who is trying to be a better Jew. As good as we may be, let us try to be better still.
Rabbi Yossy Goldman was born in Brooklyn and was sent in 1976 by the Lubavitcher Rebbe as an emissary to serve the Jewish community of Johannesburg, South Africa. He is Senior Rabbi of the Sydenham Shul and president of the South African Rabbinical Association. His sefer “From Where I Stand: Life Messages from the Weekly Torah Reading” was published by Ktav and is available at Jewish book shops or online at www.ktav.com.