Noach was a remarkable individual, a wunderkind from the outset. His arrival in the world was announced as a transformative event in history. The inability of the earth to produce anything other than קוץ ודרדר, thistles and thorns as a result of the sin of Adam and Chava was now at an end after seven long generations. His name reflects this renewal of the very nature of the world – נח has roots suggesting leaving behind the past, being renewed, refreshed (see Rashi on Breishis 5:29).
The implication is even greater than just a fresh start though. The Zohar indicates that Noach had the potential to bring the Geula, to be the Moshiach. Now that the sin of Adam and Cain would be rectified, world history would reach its zenith and God’s intentions in creating the world would be entirely fulfilled. Mankind will arrive at its final glorious destination.
As we know, things didn’t quite work out like that. Noach did not transform his generation and the Geula did not arrive.
So, the question begs, what went wrong?
Possibly the most famous chassidishe vort of all is that of Reb Zusha, who somewhat comfortingly said that when he arrives in the World to Come he won’t be asked why he hadn’t become as great as Avrohom, Yitzchok, Yaakov or any of the great luminaries of the past. He will only be asked ‘why didn’t you become Reb Zusha’.
In other words, you only have your own unique potential to measure up to and will not be held to anyone else’s standards. However, the Talmud appears to contradict this, stating that one should ask oneself daily when one’s actions will measure up to those of Avrohom, Yitzchok, and Yaakov!
In trying to understand this further, consider the famous Rashi at the beginning of Parshas Noach. Rashi brings the Talmud’s comment in Sanhedrin 108a on Noach’s status as a ‘perfect tzaddik in his generation’, telling us that one of the two ways of understanding this verse is that the verse is actually being negative about Noach’s greatness. ‘
He was righteous in his generation. Had he instead lived in the generation of Avrohom Avinu he would have been considered worthless’. Compared to Avrohom he would have been a nothing! However, let’s suggest an alternative explanation. Rav Yosef Ber Soloveichik once said that although he generally failed to understand the works of Rav Kook (whatever that means for such a gaon), there was one passage in one of his sefarim which he understood all too well.
At the conclusion of our Rosh Hashanah Amida we say, “My G-d! Before I was created I was worthless; now that I have been created, it is as if I have not been created.”
Rav Kook, in his commentary on the Siddur, explains that every Soul has its unique purpose and mission. This mission can only be accomplished at a particular time in history. Souls are time released to the generation to which they belong. If that Neshama would come into this world at a different time in history it would be unable to make its contribution or fulfill its function and purpose. All souls, for all times, were created at the beginning of time and remain, paraphrasing Yeshaya 64:1, under God’s throne. Each soul is released only when its unique historical slot arrives.
At the end of our Rosh Hashanah Amidah, we sigh and say,”My Soul has been in holding for so long until it has reached the correct time for me to be created, and now that time has come and I have been created; it is almost as if I have not been created.”
Perhaps Rashi can be understood to mean that Noach could only have been who he was in his own generation. As great as he was, his unique potential could only be fulfilled at the time he lived. Had he lived in the time of Avrohom Avinu or later he could not have achieved anything.
The Torah introduces the fall of Noach after the flood with the words ‘ויחל נח’. Rashi explains that he made himself ’chulin’. Chulin means specifically the opposite of kadosh, ‘holy’. To be Holy is to be designated for a very clear and specific purpose. Not to recognize that purpose or not to act upon it is to make yourself Chulin – ‘regular’.
Noach could and should have utilized this brand new start in the post-deluge world to be true to his purpose, to be kadosh, but he didn’t. Noach had the ability and opportunity to live for a purpose higher than his own personal needs but fell short. Noach could have brought the Geula, but he didn’t. His perceived goals were stunted and limited rather than soaring and holy.
Achieving one’s potential is bound up with setting one’s life goals in the realm of holiness, letting personal desires and ordinary life issues play second fiddle to the greater designated goal of achieving our purpose in the world.
I remember hearing a story of Mrs. Becker AH. She was miraculously pulled out of a death march in Bergen Belson and was liberated by the US army. Suddenly she found herself living in the quiet community of Rochester, New York. Within one year after walking in that death march, she was the head of the local Sisterhood and could be seen in the Synagogue kitchen with an apron on baking cookies to help the Shul build a new wing! “I have no time to grieve’ she said, ‘I must fulfill the purpose of my soul!’
This is why the Talmud obligates us to ask ourselves. “When will my actions be like Avrohom, Yitzchok, and Yaakov?!” When will we understand, like the illustrious Patriarchs did, why we are here – in this place; at this time.