November 2, 2000
Parashat Noach (Genesis 6:9-11:32)
In most big cities in the United States, horse-and-buggy rides are offered as tourist attractions. It is therefore not shocking to find them lined up in Philadelphia, right near Constitution Hall and the Liberty Bell.
What was surprising, however, was whom I found driving a horse and buggy during a summer visit to Philadelphia. As I approached the horses and buggies, I noticed that all of the drivers were dressed in crazy costumes, each claiming that his ride was the best Philadelphia could offer. But one buggy driver was a little different. His outfit consisted of a beard and yarmulke. I couldn't believe my eyes. Immediately I thought, "What is wrong with this picture?" Didn't this fellow ever hear Jackie Mason instruct that certain professions aren't for Jews?
I inquired if he had any problem getting the job. Did the owner of the business object to his wearing a yarmulke? He told me, "Are you kidding? The owner loved it. He thought it was a costume, and the crazier you look, the better it is for business." I then asked if it actually attracts people. He replied that Israelis love it, and they come and take rides so they can have pictures of him with the horse and buggy. They do this because no one in Israel will believe them unless they have the picture to prove it.
I wondered what a religious Jew was doing here. He told us that he is a college student majoring in history. I inquired if his interest in history led to his employment, but he assured me that it didn't. I then asked if he had a natural empathy for horses, but he replied that until he took this job he had never come near a horse. Confused, I again asked, "Why would a nice Jewish boy like you be working here?" He replied simply, "I needed a summer job."
It took me some time to appreciate his answer, but when I did I realized it also helped me understand a fascinating point about Noah and the view the sages of old had of him.
Our sages wondered if Noah was really great. Although the Torah states in the opening verse, "Noah was a perfect tzadik in his generation," Rashi, the classical medieval commentator, quotes the Midrash that states, "But if he had been in the generation of Abraham, he would not have been considered significant."
In a penetrating observation, the 19th century Chassidic work, the Shem MiShmuel, wonders how we can say this when the Torah itself stated that Noah was "a perfect tzadik." Abraham, in contrast, was never called perfect. Instead, God told him before his circumcision, "Walk before Me and be perfect." In other words, Noah was perfect, but Abraham had to attain perfection.
This, claims the Shem MiShmuel, is the message of the Midrash. Noah was perfect because he was blessed innately with spirituality. As the Talmudic work Avot D'rabbi Nathan claims, Noah was even born circumcised. He needed to do nothing to attain piety. It was a built-in phenomenon that never changed.But, asks the Midrash, is true greatness received or achieved? In contrast to Noah, Abraham's origins were idolatrous, and he attained piety because of his tremendous efforts. This, argue our rabbis, is true greatness. When one overcomes all the obstacles that are in front of him and becomes great, that deserves our recognition.
That young college student in Philadelphia proved to me that you can achieve anything you want if you just put your mind to it. He needed a job, so he overcame obstacles to get one. Some of us are like Noah with all of the blessings built in, but most people have to work to achieve success.
Elazar Muskin is rabbi of Young Israel of Century City.