The penultimate verses of Parashat Bereishit present us with dire foreboding: And the L-rd saw that the evil of man was great in the earth, and every imagination of his heart was only evil all the time. And the L-rd regretted that He had made man upon the earth, and He became grieved in His heart. And the L-rd said, “I will blot out man, whom I created, from upon the face of the earth, from man to cattle to creeping thing, to the fowl of the heavens, for I regret that I made them.” (6:5-7)
The final pasuk, however, offers us a ray of hope: “v’Noach matza chane b’einai Hashem (But Noah found favor in the eyes of the L-rd).” The first verse in our parasha explains why he found favor: “Noah was a righteous man, perfect in his generations … Noah walked with G-d.”
Rashi cites the well-known argument regarding Noach’s true persona, in his generations: “Some of our Sages interpret it [b’dorotav] favorably: How much more so if he had lived in a generation of righteous people, he would have been even more righteous. Others interpret it derogatorily: In comparison with his generation he was righteous, but if he had been in Abraham’s generation, he would not have been considered of any importance.”
The positive approach focuses on who Noach was in an absolute sense, rather than who he was in comparison to others. As many commentators note, his name is comprised of the Hebrew letters nun and chet which, when reversed, spell the word “chane” (grace). In other words, in his very being, Noach was an ish tzaddik. In stark contrast, the oft-quoted negative approach suggests that Noach was essentially “a nobody,” and that only in the darkness and depravity of his time did he appear righteous.
Like Rashi, the Ramban analyzes the expression b’dorotav, in his generations. After citing Rashi’s words, he suggests his own interpretation: “In my view, the most satisfying explanation, according to the simple meaning, is that he [Noach] was hatzadik b’dorot hahame (the only righteous person in those generations). Thus, there was no one else was worthy of being saved in that generation.
It appears that the Rambam is adopting the “chane hypothesis” as cited above, namely, that Noach was an authentic tzadik and tamim in his own right. This is borne out by his earlier comment on Noach ish tzadik haya: The verse mentions that Noah was zakkai v’shalame b’tzidko (free of guilt and complete in his righteousness), to let us know that he deserved to be saved from the deluge because he didn’t deserve any punishment at all, for he was tamim b’tzedek (perfect in righteousness). The word “tzadik” refers to someone who is righteous in judgment, the opposite of “rasha,” an evil individual.
In sum, the portrait of Noach that emerges from the Ramban’s presentation is a person who was tamim b’tzedek in every sense of the term. As such, he was the ideal person to continue the human race in the coming postdiluvian world.
Closer to our own time, Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, in his Commentary on the Torah, examines the expression matza chane b’einai Hashem in a manner that complements the Ramban’s presentation: A person who has found favor in the eyes of Hashem has achieved the highest level of perfection — for such an individual is able to [intellectually and spiritually] come close before Hashem.
Rav Hirsch equates Noach with Moshe and the Jewish people: The expression, “matza chane” is found solely in regard to those whom Hashem has graced with extraordinary virtues and unique abilities so that they may achieve the most lofty and exceptional of all goals. We find this in reference to Moshe and the Jewish people. As the text states: “matza chane ba’midbar (they found grace in the desert).” (Sefer Yirmiyahu 31:1)
This is the case, as well, regarding Noach, whose entire generation destroyed its proper path and was judged for complete destruction; yet, he was fitting in the eyes of Hashem to be utilized as the foundation for all future salvation. [In sum,] everything that Hashem’s “heart” sought to find in mankind was inherent in Noach. [As a result, the Almighty] tasked him with saving all life that was good and bringing it forth into the future.
For Rav Hirsch, Noach, like Moshe and the Jewish people, was graced by Hashem “with extraordinary virtues and unique abilities” that provided him with the potential to be “the foundation for all future salvation.” Moreover, “everything that Hashem’s ‘heart’ sought to find in mankind was inherent in Noach.”
In my estimation, this concept is inspiring beyond words, for we are the descendants of Noach and his children and thereby carry the potential for greatness of spirit and action. As David HaMelech beautifully said, “What is man that You should remember him, and the son of man that You should be mindful of him? You have made him slightly less than the angels, and You have crowned him with glory and majesty.” (Tehillim 8:6)
With Hashem’s help may we ever use our potential “l’takane ha’olam b’malchut Sha-dai (to perfect the world under the kingship of the Almighty).” (Aleinu)
V’chane yihi ratzon.