No doubt about it—Noah was a good person. In fact, the Torah tells us that he was the most righteous person in his generation. But, perhaps that’s like praising someone for being the best player on a losing team! Let’s look more closely at Noah.

Noah saved his family and the animals. This is all good. But something is missing. Nowhere do we read that Noah tried to persuade his friends, neighbors, and anyone who would listen to repent and change their ways. He didn’t utter a word of concern for all the people who were about to drown in the waters of the Flood. While it’s true that God commanded Noah to bring just his family and the animals aboard, you would think he would have argued with God about the death sentence for humanity.

The Hasidic master, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, once referred to a certain rabbi  as a tzadik in peltz—“a righteous person in a fur coat.” Here is what he meant: “When it is freezing cold outside, you can build a fire, or you can wrap yourself in a fur coat. If you wear a fur coat, you’re the only one who gets warm. But, if you build a fire, everyone else can get warm, as well.”

While Noah didn’t wear a fur coat during the Flood, he certainly remained content with saving just his family. When the decree of the Flood came, Noah did as he was told, but didn’t intercede on behalf of all those who would die.

Unlike Noah, Abraham, ten generations later, stands up to God. In a huge debate, Abraham asks God how many innocent people it would take to spare the city. For many sages, God chooses to make Abraham the first Jew precisely because of his concern for others. Righteous people cannot merely care about themselves and their families; they have to care about others as well. This is why, for example, we honor the righteous gentiles who saved Jewish lives during the Holocaust, often at the risk of their own lives. The greatest heroes in history have been those who have gone beyond their own needs and their own safety to save others.

Shabbat Shalom

—Rabbi Adrian M Schell (Source: Rabbi Salkin; Torah Commentary)