This week's Torah reading open with a description of the hero of the parshah:

"...Noah, a righteous man, perfect was he in his generations; Noah walked with G‑d"

The sages of the Talmud wonder about the phrase "in his generations." What is the Torah telling us by adding these seemingly superfluous words? Rashi, in his commentary on the verse, sums up their discussion as follows:

Among the sages, there are those who interpret this as praise of Noah: If he was righteous in his generation, certainly he would have been even more righteous had he lived in a generation of righteous people.

Others interpret it negatively: In relation to his wicked generation he was righteous, but had he been in Abraham's generation he would not have amounted to anything.

But it is the sages of the Talmud who instruct us to "judge every man to the side of merit," and go so far as to declare that "the Torah is loath to speak negatively even of a non-kosher animal." If the clause "in his generations" can be understood both ways, why propose a negative interpretation?

Because there are two important lessons which this interpretation imparts to us. On the one hand, it teaches us that Noah's achievements are not just for the perfectly righteous. Also a flawed individual can successfully resist a negative environment, and even build the entire world anew—as did Noah.

On the other hand, it also teaches us how Noah should not be emulated. Perhaps Noah should not be faulted for failing to save his generation, or for the other shortcomings apparent in the Torah's account, limited as he was by the circumstances of "his generations"; but should this be our attitude when we are constrained by our circumstances? This is the lesson of the Sages' "negative interpretation" of Noah: that we should never satisfy ourselves with the excuse that "this is world in which we live," but persist in our efforts to redeem it.

So in the final analysis, it is the negative interpretation that is the true credit to Noah. Had we only been presented with the positive perspective on Noah, leading us to suffice with his kind of righteousness, this would actually amplify his failings. But when the Torah's criticism of Noah becomes a source of positive instruction to us, Noah's failings are redeemed as a source of virtue.1