Defining Greatness: Benjy's Reflections on Parashat Noach

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Please enjoy a d’var Torah this week from Rosh Machon 2018 Benjy Forester. Originally from Deerfield, Illinois, Benjy spent 12 summers at camp. After graduating from Washington University in St. Louis, Benjy spent a year working with JDC’s Jewish Service Corps in Budapest, Hungary and then returned to the US to study in the Hadar Institute’s full-time yeshiva fellowship. Benjy is now in Rabbinical School at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Defining Greatness: Reflections on Parashat Noach
by Benjy Forester

Last Shabbat morning Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, Moriah Congregation, and many other institutions and individuals lost one of our greatest champions, Rabbi Sam Fraint of blessed memory.  Benjy dedicates these words of Torah this week to Rabbi Fraint’s memory, appropriate both in the juxtaposition of sports and Judaism’s great lessons and for a reasoned and respectful teasing out of diametrically opposed ideas.  In consonance with Benjy and generations of Ramahniks whom Rabbi Fraint mentored, influenced, and supported, I wish his family comfort, in the hours, days, and weeks ahead, amongst the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.                                                                                     --Jacob

Sports fans never tire of debates about the Greatest Of All Time (GOAT). In almost all cases, these arguments involve comparing players whose professional careers never overlapped. Michael or Lebron? Montana or Brady? Different eras of different sports emphasize different talents, yet a comparison is somehow forged between the grittiest (and therefore best) player of one generation to the most agile (and therefore best) player of another generation. We are left with anachronistic discussions with no clear standards of how to evaluate players of different eras with different standards of greatness.

Our Parasha begins by praising Noah for being איש צדיק ... בדורותיו / ish tzadik b’dorotav, the only righteous member of his entire generation. At first glance, this nearly unparalleled praise amongst biblical leaders seems to assert that against a backdrop of chaos and sin, Noah emerges as a true exemplar of righteousness. In other words, Noah is the GOAT.

However, perhaps the text specified “בדורותיו – in his generation,” in order to suggest that with a generation as bad as his, a nobody like Noah happened to be the most righteous option around. With this read, some of the highest words of praise in the Torah transform into a backhanded compliment for being the best horse in a bad race. Noah is no outstanding specimen after all.

Back to our sports debate, Lebron James may be considered the GOAT for bringing helpless Cavaliers teams to the NBA Finals (first option), but saying that Gerald Henderson was the best player on the 2011-2012 Charlotte Bobcats that hardly won 10% of its games is more of a statement about that team’s misery than about asserting any sort of transcendent qualities to Gerald Henderson (second option). Do not even try to compare Henderson to Lebron.

This debate about Noah’s merit plays out in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 108A). Rabbi Yochanan claims that Noah was no real tzaddik (righteous person), but he stood out as righteous because of how low humanity had sunk. God had to choose someone to spare in order to repopulate the world, and he chose his best card from a bad hand. Reish Lakish disagrees, admiring Noah for being the only person with the moral courage to resist sin from his whole generation. In this read, Noah is not only righteous compared to people of his generation, but he is perhaps the most righteous person ever, because it is easy to conform to such pervasive standards of moral degeneration but incredibly hard to resist.

Either read is plausible, and a good amount is at stake. Remember, Noah is the new proto-human, and from his progeny emerges the rest of humanity. Are we all descendants of the great exemplar of righteousness? Or do we come from a man who would not necessarily have stood out as special at any other time?

One can search for clues to assist either reading, but I’d like to suggest that the debate falls victim to the same argumentative fallacy that belies the greatest athlete debate. How could we possibly know that Noah is the most righteous person in some abstract sense? It’s hard to know how to evaluate such a claim, and we hardly get any clues into Noah’s righteousness anyway. It’s totally possible that Noah might not have stood out in a different moral backdrop, but that doesn’t change the fact that at the moment that God made a decision about the world, Noah did stand out, was called upon, and it is his covenant that humanity clings to until today. He should be appreciated for being exemplary in his time and place, when God needed someone just like him, only him.

At camp, we play out these same types of debates as well. Most commonly, we argue which musical performance was better. NCAA-style brackets popped up last year on social media, pitting different camp generations into some imagined head-to-head competition. How do we account for improvements to the Beit Am lighting? New plaque design possibilities? Les Miserables 2006, 2012, or 2018?!?! Jacob Cytryn argues that the 90s was the golden era. How could the best plays have been performed before I was old enough to see them??

Different eras weigh greatness differently and all should be appreciated in their own right. A wiser decision than these helpless arguments is to see each moment in camp history as its own precious snapshot. Every summer, chanichim (campers) have new opportunities for growth and new activities to explore. For each chanich and chanicha, a summer represents a particular moment in their life, and a particular moment in time, and it must be celebrated as such. My Machon (10th grade) summer in 2009 unfolded against a particular historical and personal backdrop. As Rosh Machon in 2018, I watched a group of 15-year-olds come to camp during a very different historical moment, and composed of individuals special in their own right. Trying to compare the leaders and great moments of these two Machon summers would be futile and would diminish my ability to cherish each for their uniqueness.

In closing, I want to recall my dear Rabbi Sam Fraint z”l. Rabbi Fraint saw the importance of praising Ramah’s precious leaders and milestones in all generations. His years at camp were formative for his life, and he encouraged so many to attend Ramah so that we could have our own moments of greatness בדורותינו / b’doroteinu / in our generation. In general, I would say that Rabbi Fraint did not have the easiest time with ideological shifts, and struggled to grasp my generation’s understanding of certain elements of Jewish tradition. Less than two weeks ago, I wrote to him to update him on my life and to share some thoughts. I told him that I loved him and that I miss him. He wrote back that same day with deep kavod (respect) for me as a thinker and individual. While he disagreed with all my points, saying we were thinking in apples and oranges, he finished by saying, “Thank you for the respect and friendship you show me. I hope you feel I show the same to you.” My response to his email sits as a forever unfinished draft in my email, but I wanted to say thank you.

I admire the commitment to Jewish tradition and the Jewish People that Rabbi Fraint showed in his generation, and I thank him for the ways he encouraged my generation to pursue deep Jewish experiences and live meaningful lives. I love you and I miss you.  יהי זכרו ברוך / yehi zichro baruch / may his memory be a blessing.