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”.
“And the entire land were of one language, and the same words” (Breisheet 11:1). What a beautiful description of a world at peace! A world in which people are speaking the same language, literally and figuratively, and pursuing similar goals sounds almost like Gan Eden. Yet apparently, G-d did not approve. “From the place, G-d scattered them all over the face of the earth, and they stopped building the city” (v.8). While the Torah does not specify any actual sin by the builders of the tower—nor is it easy to detect what exactly they did wrong—something was amiss.
"And Lemech called him Noach saying, this one will bring us relief, yenachmeinu, from our work and the anguish of our hands, from the soil that G-d had cursed" (Breisheet 5:29 ). After ten generations of despair there was hope that Noach would bring relief, nechama, to a cursed world. Due to the sin of Adam HaRishon, "the ground will be cursed because of you. You will derive food from it with anguish all the days of your life". Noach is the first person whose birth is recorded in the Bible following the death of Adam.
Much of Parshat Breisheet details the moral failings of many of the individuals whom we meet: Adam and Eve, Cain, Lemech. These early failures were those of individuals. As society developed, we no longer read of individual failings but of general corruption. The ramifications of such are much greater. "The world was corrupt before G-d and the world was full of hamas, theft" (Breisheet 6:11). Apart from Noach and his family, we meet no individuals from the generation of the flood (and even with Noach, we meet only men).
"In the midst of the day, b'etzem, Noach came, and Cham and Yefet, the children of Noach, and the wife of Noach, and three wives of his children with them, to the ark (Breisheet 7:13). Commenting on the use the word b'etzem, Rashi quotes the Midrash that Noach entered the ark in broad daylight. Noach, as is often noted, had little influence on his generation.
We tend to view Adam as a failure at life, unable to obey his only command from G-d. Noach was better, yet many see him as one who could have accomplished so much more than what he did. Only with the advent of Avraham do we have the person capable of bringing G-d’s message to mankind.
Noach was “righteous and pure”, in the words of the Bible. Twice in the space of few verses the Torah tells us that “Noach did all that G-d commanded him” (6:22 and 7:5). It is through Noach that humanity is descendant, a most worthy reward for “one who walked with G-d”.
“Noach was a righteous man, perfect in his generation” (6:9). It is hard to imagine a greater endorsement than that which the Torah gives to Noach. Surrounded by a society steeped in evil, he towered above all. Man had sunk so low; murder, idolatry and sexual immorality (Rashi 4:26) were so rampant that G-d had had enough: “I will blot out man whom I created from the face of the earth” (6:7). G-d did not do so only because “Noach found favour in the eyes of G-d” (6:8). Noach had apparently saved the world from the brink of destruction.