Some said that if, in his wicked generation, he could maintain his righteousness, how much more would he have shone in a better age like that of Abraham.
But others argued that it was only in relation to the low standard of his age that he was righteous, and had he lived in the time of Abraham he would not have been particularly great.
Is there really a good case for the dor’shim lig’nai who were critical of Noah? What grounds had they for their approach?
An answer is given by Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev. There are two kinds of righteous people, said Rabbi Levi Yitzchak, two kinds of tzaddikim.
There is the unselfish tzaddik, who is upright and pious in his personal life, walks with God and tries to bring his fellow-creatures nearer to God and to righteousness.
Abraham was this kind of tzaddik. Everywhere he went he brought the message of faith and he won souls for the Lord.
In his compassion for others, Abraham sought to save even the wicked people of Sodom and Gomorrah by pleading that there might be some righteousness in their midst.
The other kind of tzaddik, says Levi Yitzchak, is a faithful and ardent servant of God, but concerns himself only with his own purity and religiosity, and makes no attempt to bring others to his way of life.
It is that kind of tzaddik that Noah was. He was a righteous and wholehearted man, certainly, but he walked only with God, not with his fellow creatures. He preserved his own life and that of his family, but he did not utter one word of appeal to God to consider saving the rest of mankind.
And so, compared with the unselfish Abraham, Noah’s righteousness was not so outstanding.
There is a significance in the association of this interpretation with Levi Yitzchak. He was a Chasidic teacher who flourished in the late 18th century; his name is synonymous with love of God and love of man. He could always find a redeeming feature in the greatest rasha (evildoer). He would be the first to take up the case of the human sinner before God.
When he saw a wagon-driver, wearing tallit and tefillin whilst oiling the wheels of his wagon, Levi Yitzchak exclaimed, “What a holy people is Israel! Even when they oil the wheels of their wagons, they are mindful of God!”
When he heard a thief boasting to his confederates about the night’s haul, he said, “It is still a long time to Yom Kippur, yet the man has already begun to confess his sins!”
It is no wonder that Levi Yitzchak saw in Abraham a kindred spirit, and was deeply disappointed with Noah who failed to fight for his fellow-man.