These are the generations of Noach, Noach was a righteous man he was perfect in his generations . . . (Bereishis 6:9)
One might have thought that the words “yesharim,” which means “straight ones,” and “tzaddikim,” or “righteous people,” are just two terms for the same thing. Righteous people have integrity, and those with integrity tend to be righteous people. The Talmud begs to differ:
Rav Nachman bar Yitzchak said: “I also say that not everyone will have light, nor will all have joy. Light will be for the tzaddikim and joy for the Yesharim.” (Ta’anis 15a)
Even more insightful is Rashi’s comment:
Yesharim will have joy because they are greater than Tzaddikim. (Rashi, Ta’anis 15a)
This is easier to understand based upon this week’s parshah, as the verse says and Rashi explains:
These are the generations of Noach, Noach was a righteous man, he was perfect in his generations; Noach walked with God. (Bereishis 6:9)
In his generations: Some of our rabbis interpret this favorably: How much more so if he had lived in a generation of righteous people, he would have been even more righteous. Others interpret it derogatorily: In comparison with his generation he was righteous, but if he had been in Avraham’s generation, he would not have been considered of any importance. (Rashi)
From the verse we learn that Noach was a righteous man. From the Talmud quoted by Rashi, we learn that righteousness can be a relative trait. A person can be righteous relative to something else, and therefore less righteous, or not even righteous at all compared to someone much greater than him.
In fact, the Talmud defines righteousness in a couple of ways. This is one implied by the Talmud and explained by the Rambam:
A person should always see himself as though he is half guilty and half meritorious. If he performs one mitzvah, he is fortunate, for he has tilted himself to the side of merit. If he commits one transgression, woe unto him, because he has tilted himself to the side of guilt. (Kiddushin 40b)
Each and every person has merits and sins. A person whose merits exceed his sins is deemed righteous. A person whose sins exceed his merits is deemed wicked. (Yad, Hilchos Teshuvah 3:1)
One might have thought that a righteous person is someone whose merits FAR exceed his demerits. Apparently, it only takes one merit more than one’s total amount of demerits to earn that accolade. There may be many more righteous people walking around than we know. Alternatively, people may have more demerits than they think they have.
Another definition of righteousness appears elsewhere in Mishlei. It says there:
For a righteous man falls seven times, and rises again, but the wicked stumble in time of calamity. (Mishlei 24:16)
According to this verse, the difference between a righteous person and an evil person is not whether or not they sin. As Shlomo HaMelech said, even righteous people sin (Koheles 7:20). The fundamental difference is what each does once he has sinned. According to Mishlei, the righteous person does teshuvah and continues working on being righteous. The evil person sins and gives up, instead continuing down a slippery path to spiritual self-destruction.
This is why Noach could be considered righteous relative to his generation. This is also why Yosef HaTzaddik could almost err and sin with his master’s wife:
Rebi Yochanan said: This teaches that both [Yosef and Potiphar’s wife] had the intention of acting immorally . . . Rav and Shmuel [differ in their interpretation]. One said that it really means [that Yosef went] to do his work, but the other said that he went to satisfy his desires. (Sotah 36b)
In the end, Yosef did not sin, but only because of some assistance:
At that moment his father’s image came and appeared to him through the window and said: “Yosef, your brothers will have their names inscribed upon the stones of the ephod and yours will be among theirs. Do you wish to have your name removed from among theirs and be called an associate of harlots instead?” (Sotah 36b)
Tzaddikim may get up again, but it is only because they have fallen. They do teshuvah, but only because they have sinned. Only God can determine the test of a person and how well he has coped with it, whether he is to be called “tzaddik” or “rasha.” Had we met Noach, we might not have called him “tzaddik.” God, however, does (which is why, perhaps, the Torah adds the words: Noach walked with God).
Who are the Yesharim? The Talmud states the following:
What is Sefer HaYashar? Rebi Chiya bar Abba said in the name of Rebi Yochanan: It is the book of Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya’akov, who are called “Yesharim” . . . (Avodah Zarah 25a)
Straight, in this context, means only thing: integrity. Integrity, in this context, means only one thing: sticking to the truth no matter what. It means doing the obviously right thing, no matter how many rationalizations come to mind to do differently. It means doing the mitzvah even though every fiber of one’s being argues that it does apply here.
For example, everyone knew that Eisav was bad news, including Yitzchak. Everyone knew that there was no hope for him as far as being the leader of the future Jewish people. It was clear to all that he didn’t deserve the blessing of the first born, to Yitzchak as well.
Nevertheless, Yitzchak had a mitzvah to bless the first born, and God had not told him otherwise. He sent Eisav hunting to try and improve the situation, but either way he was going to give the blessing to Eisav, his first born son. If the blessing was meant for Ya’akov, it was God’s business, not Yitzchak’s, to arrange it.
Anyone who thinks that Ya’akov Avinu did not want to avenge the violation of his daughter by wiping out Shechem, as Shimon and Levi did, does not understand Ya’akov Avinu. Tzaddikim do such things. Yesharim do not, so he didn’t.
Countless times did people put Avraham Avinu into positions that would have caused others to compromise their values. How many times could Avraham have rationalized that the mitzvah was not as it seems, but as he sees it? For example, would it not have been a bigger Kiddush Hashem to NOT have sacrificed Yitzchak to God in a society that was pining to sacrifice THEIR children to their gods?
A tzaddik can make that mistake albeit for good reasons. A Yashar cannot, because he doesn’t even entertain other possibilities other than the one God told him about. Avraham, Yitzchak, and Ya’akov could never have found themselves in the kind of situation that Yosef did with his master’s wife. It’s just not possible for Yesharim.
Had Adam HaRishon been yashar, as opposed to only righteous, he would never have allowed himself to eat from the Aitz HaDa’as Tov v’Ra. Had Chava been more yashar, she would have ignored the snake and his ridiculous rationalizations. She had a commandment from God, and what was stronger that that?
When tzidkus—righteousness—is emphasized in place of yashrus—straightness—assumed that the former includes the latter, there is a good chance that neither will be achieved. When yashrus is taught as a priority, there is a good chance that both will be achieved because a person will develop a sense of right and wrong that leaves little room for faulty rationalizations.
In the end, it is not always tzidkus that keeps children in the fold. It is yashrus. As history has proven countless times tzidkus is not always the best defense against the wiles of the yetzer hara, especially in a fast-paced, supercharged world. There are plenty of people around the earth who are doing less-than-decent things and STILL consider themselves to be somewhat “righteous.”
Yashrus, on the other, interferes with self-deception. Once built in, bells go off and keep going off every time a person knows he is doing something with which God disagrees. Yashrus can carry a person through the difficult and tempting years, until he or she is old enough to understand why it was truly yashar to stay a morally-straight course.
The upcoming American Presidential election is a good case in point. Neither candidate can be considered a tzaddik in any generation, though they both think highly of themselves, as do their supporters. All this election can come down to, therefore, is which candidate has the most integrity, or at least, the least amount of yashrus. The one with the least yashrus will be the one who will rationalize behavior in the name of the greater good that, in the end, is really wrong, perhaps even evil.
Stepping back and looking at the bigger picture, there is something very important to point out. As one person told me recently, “History always repeats itself, but in a different way.” Mark Twain said the same thing, but differently: History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.
Let me give you an analogy. Imagine a person being run over by a Volkswagen, only to be hit by a truck while looking for a Volkswagen that might hit him a second time. Jews are not concerned about the situation today because they don’t see any Brownshirts coming after them. It’s a mistake.
An article was recently published that claimed that College students support Bernie Sanders and Leftist policies because they are dumb (his words, not mine). Western society today is one in which rock stars and Hollywood actors are moral authorities, deciding right and wrong on national levels while God is elbowed into oblivion.
In 1938, Kristallnacht resulted in broken windows and a message about the future of European Jewry. In previous exiles, it looked differently just as it will in our time. Too many Jews are looking for that second “Volkswagen,” but oblivious to the oncoming “truck.” The world is changing, and not in a positive way. Is it any wonder therefore, that so much anti-Israel sentiment is building up? This upcoming election is a message about the future of world Jewry. Is anyone listening.