Pity poor Noah. He needed a better press agent.
Noah has gotten a bad rap for centuries, because of one Hebrew word in the very first sentence of this week’s Torah portion, which reads: “This is the line of Noah. Noah was a righteous man; he was blameless in his generation; Noah walked with God.”
He sounds like an outstanding person. He was righteous, blameless, and walked with God. The problem lies with the word b’dorotav, “in his generation.”
The rabbis of the Talmud jumped on this, noticing that the word served as a qualifier for the rest of the statement. As one pointed out, “[Relative to the others] of his generation, but not [relative to those] of other generations.” (Sanhedrin 108a)
Commenting on this, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote, “The Jewish sages heard in the phrase ‘righteous in his generations’ a subtle criticism. Relative to his generation, he was righteous, but in absolute terms he was not.”
In other words, Noah was good, but not as good as he might have been. This reminds me of a rabbi who sent a note on Facebook to her colleagues who were about to lead High Holy Day services. She wrote: “All will be well. You are enough.”
That last phrase has stayed with me. She sent this to a group of distinguished rabbis and cantors, and yet felt the need to give them encouragement. You are enough.
As far as God was concerned, Noah was enough. So why wasn’t that enough for the sages?
I think it’s because, as my friend on Facebook noticed, even those who are the most accomplished, the most successful, and the most admired, can succumb to feelings of inadequacy.
This is not always a bad thing. The author of a book on creativity, Rod Judkins, wrote, “Do you feel inadequate, that you’re not as talented as others? Good. Feeling inadequate is a driving force to do better. The self-satisfied are not the ones producing interesting things. They’re sitting back feeling smug and conceited.”
For me, this is going too far in the other direction. I hope for some level of equilibrium, some degree of balance in my life that enables me to get up every day and do my job even when I feel inadequate, but which keeps me from congratulating myself every time something goes well.
I found my answer in a story about a Hassidic master who always carried with him two slips of paper, one in each pocket. On one he wrote: “For my sake the world was created,” and on the other he wrote: “I am but dust and ashes.” He would take out each slip of paper whenever he needed a reminder.
Sometimes, we need to be reminded that we are but dust and ashes. And sometimes we need to be reminded that for our sakes the world was created. And then we have to get up and do the work at hand, to the best of our ability. And it will be enough.