Lack of Talent is no Excuse

A guest post by Rabbi Mayer Freedman

Associate Rabbi, Beth Joseph Congregation

In this week’s Torah portion we read about Noah and the flood.  The Torah stresses that Noah was a tzaddik, a righteous person, in his generation.  The implication, the Talmud explains, is that only in his own generation was Noah considered righteous.  If he would have lived a few generations later he would not have been considered righteous since his piety would have been overshadowed by the piety of Abraham.
The commentators explain why this is so.  G-d had entrusted Noah with a mission to convince the people of his generation to repent and avoid the calamity of the flood.  Noah was instructed to work for 120 years on building the ark in order that those passing by would notice this huge structure, ask about it and be warned that destruction was imminent, with the hope that they would repent.  Noah, however, failed in his mission and was unable to bring the people of his generation to repentance.  Abraham, on the other hand, was successful at bringing hundreds, if not thousands, of people to recognize their Creator.  Not only was he a pious person in his own right, but he brought others to piety as well.
Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetzky (1891 –1986), one of the prominent Torah scholars of the 1900s, asks a question on this explanation.  The Midrash goes into great detail in telling the story of Noah’s rebuke to the people of his generation.  He gave them constant rebuke, the Midrash tells us, in regards to their sin of idol worship.  He taught them how horrible idol worship was and described the punishments that were awaiting those who serve pagan gods.  His rebuke, however, didn’t work, since they weren’t worshipping idols as an end in and of itself.  Rather, it was a means to an end. They wanted to behave immorally and just used idol worship as an excuse to justify their immorality.  Therefore, the Midrash concludes, Noah really should have given them rebuke on the gravity of their immoral actions instead.  That would indeed have caused them to repent.
Based on this Midrash, Rabbi Kamenetzky points out that we see that Noah actually did give rebuke to his generation.  He simply didn’t address the underlying cause of their sins.  How is he at fault for that?  Noah wasn’t a psychologist; how can we hold him responsible for not realizing their true motives?  Why is Noah criticized for something that seems to have been beyond his ability to perform?
Rabbi Kamenetzky answers that in order to be truly righteous, one must force oneself to be wise.  The righteous person will realize that the world needs his help.  The world has fallen into disrepair and needs to be fixed.  The world is calling on him to act and take up a position of responsibility in order to better society.  But what can he do?  He wasn’t blessed with the abilities to take up that position of responsibility.  We see from the story of Noah that this is not a valid excuse.  If one truly feels the yoke of responsibility for the community, he will do the impossible to make sure that he fulfills that responsibility.  Indeed, Noah should have turned himself into a psychologist in order to figure out what the true, underlying cause was of the sins of his generation and properly bring them to repentance.
The world is a scary place these days. Our generation is searching for leadership and direction.  No one will be able to say, “I wasn’t blessed with the skills” because if one would truly have felt the plight of the generation, one would have moved mountains to bring our generation to a better place.  When duty calls, claiming that one does not have the proper talents is not an excuse.

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