For years, psychologists have debated the impact of the environment (nurture) on the development of human beings. Can we be inherently changed by exposure to our surroundings? Or does our environment act as a mechanism that helps reveal our latent nature? Jewish teachings abound with admonitions regarding the importance of the surroundings we choose. The Rambam (Hilchot Deot 6:1) goes so far as to rule that if one's environment is not conducive to the observance of Torah, one must move to a “better neighbourhood”. If that does not work, one is duty-bound to move to a desert to escape the corrupting influences of that society.
Yet perhaps there are some who can actually change the society around them, making the environment better for all. Should we run away from a corrupting society or must we stay and fight, risking our moral fabric to improve the lot of others? It would appear that these issues were the subject of debate amongst the rabbis in analyzing the character of Noach.
“These are the chronicles of Noach: Noach was a righteous man, faultless in his generations” (Breisheet 6:9). The phrase “in his generations, bedorotav” is the subject of a famous rabbinical dispute. One group of sages viewed this as a compliment to Noach. If he could remain righteous in his generation, a generation in which “the world was corrupt before G-d, and the land was filled with crime… all flesh had perverted its ways on the earth” (Breisheet 6:11-12), just think what heights he could have reached had there been other people like him around. Others, however, viewed this phrase in a somewhat negative light. Yes, Noach was a great man, but only as compared to the people of his generation. Compared to, let’s say, an Avraham, Noach would not even merit an honourable mention.
Why, we must ask, would many of our rabbis paint Noach is such a negative light? G-d Himself testified to his righteousness. Do these rabbis doubt ther word of G-d?
In comparing Noach to Avraham, one thing is clear. Noach withdrew from society, fearing he was not capable of standing firm against its immoral onslaught. Thus, it is no surprise he was saved by building an ark, which protects one against external forces, but offers no benefit to those on the outside. The Torah records no attempt by Noach to try to improve the ways of his generation, or even pleading with G-d so as to avert their awaited fate. Avraham, on the other hand, tried to bring the message of monotheism to the world, and prayed for the welfare of those whose ways were no less evil than those of the generation of the flood. Who knows what could have happened if Noach had attempted the approach of Avraham? Perhaps the flood could have been averted.
Maybe, though, Noach was right. Sometimes the only way to save yourself is to withdraw from society. One cannot always save the world. Despite Avraham’s best efforts, Sedom had to be destroyed. In fact, there is no evidence in the Chumash that Avraham actually succeeded in converting many (or even any) away from their pagan ways; for proof of this, one need look no further than Avraham’s own children (save Yitzchak). Yet just because success is denied, does that mean one stops trying?
The debate on how best to interact (or withdraw) from a morally corrupt society continues unabated, with no clear answer. Both approaches have their merits, depending on the time, place, society and personality of the person involved. For some, withdrawal from society is the only way they can preserve their Judaism. They are following in the footsteps of Noach, a righteous man. For others, the challenges of society pose no threat to their religious behaviour. It may even strengthen their practice, as they see the need for Torah and are forced to defend their way of life. These people are following in the ways of Avraham, the first Jew.