The Holy Mentch

October 3, 2013
BY Rabbi Nitzan Bergman

Noah and Abraham were two men in the history of the world who stood up for what they believed, against their entire generation, and won.

They emerged as fathers, Noah asfather of all mankind and Abraham as father of the Jews.

Noah stood up against an immoral generation. It was socially, sexually and fiscally immoral. His generation spiraled into a state of anarchy and dysfunction. The flood was not as much a punishment as it was the natural destruction they brought upon themselves. Noah survived and became the father of all futurehumanity. The new humanity he hoped for was going to be morally upright. The Torah’s seven laws for Noah, the Noachide laws, governing all humanity, are designed to create a moral, just and thus functional society. These demand no idolatry, no murder, no adultery, no theft, no cursing God, no eating of a limb from a living animal and the positive commandment to set up a system of justice. In short, they are designed to create a mentch.

Noah’s aversion to idolatry was a moral one. Immoral people thrive by hanging their evil ways on the idols of subjectivity they make out of wood and stone. The Talmud comments that the Jews of ancient times only served idols in order to permit sexual immorality in public.

Abraham came 10 generations later and fought another battle. He fought for an active relationship with the one and only God. Abraham also stood up against idolatry but in a very different way to Noah. Abraham introduced the world to the living God. His legacy crystallized when the entire Jewish nation stood at Sinai and heard the words, “I am the Lord, your God, who took you out of Egypt, from the house of bondage.” The most powerful and positive affirmation of the relationship between the one living God and his chosen people. Abraham and his children will be the bearers of this message until b’yom hahu (on that day) when it will be revealed to all mankind that our God is the one and only God.

The covenant of Abraham, the Torah’s 613 laws for Jews (which include the seven Noachide laws), is designed to create a holy people. The all-encompassing system of Jewish law leads its adherents to a life of close proximity with God.

It was because of a Noah that it was possible for there to be an Abraham.

Derech Eretz Kadma L’Torah, morality and good behavior are necessary prerequisites to Torah. It is senseless to grasp for Abraham’s helping hand from the pit of immorality; rather it is Noah who will pull you out. Once on firm ground, however, it is a great shame for a Jew to remain there and not ascend the ladder of holiness. Ein Uma Ze Ela B’Torah, the uniqueness of the Jewish nation is only through Torah (Rav Sadia Gaon, 882-942).

The Midrash states: “These are the generations of Noah. Noah was a righteous man, he was perfect in his generations; Noah walked with God.”

The Midrash explains that Noah walked with God, whereas with respect to Abraham, God tells him, “Walk before me and be perfect.”

The idea of Noah walking with God means he needed God’s constant support to uphold him in righteousness. But Abraham strengthened himself and walked in his righteousness by himself. We have all afforded the help of being a mentch, but it takes an extra step of courage to become a holy mentch.

Nitzan Bergman is executive director of Etz Chaim: The Center for Jewish Living and Learning and founder and president of the WOW! program for young professionals.

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