The Torah is known for withholding any form of sugar-coating from its often harsh criticism of individuals and nations. According to one Midrashic opinion (cited by Rashi), the Torah’s first official introduction to Noah is an exemplar of this theme. Instead of interpreting this introduction as praising the one human being that merited being the world’s savior – as an opposing opinion does in fact interpret it – this opinion interprets the Torah’s introduction as negative and critical of our hero. “He was perfect in his generation” does not mean that he became righteous in spite of sinful surroundings but rather that he could be considered great only in relation to the lowness of the culture that surrounded him. If he would have lived in Avraham’s time, however, when the prevailing culture was more virtuous, his degree of righteousness would not have had any significance whatsoever.
This interpretation can give us perspective on how to, spiritually speaking, look at our own relationship to our community. Firstly, if we find ourselves in a lackluster milieu, we cannot allow ourselves to be limited by it. The fact that we have already surpassed its lethargic, low level cannot permit us to feel satisfied that we have grown, achieved, and accomplished enough. A second pitfall to avoid in this area is relevant, however, no matter how good, virtuous, and ambitious the surrounding culture is. If we define ourselves by a group that we identify with or consider ourselves a part of, we may someday find something lacking in our personal competence or fulfillment. Association with a particular clique, group, or movement might be emotionally satisfying, convenient, and could even possibly indirectly lead to positive personal development or accomplishments. But although it may sometimes be perceived as or even feel like a real and legitimate step upwards on the ladder of growth and change, in truth the allegiance per se does not actually improve or change one’s character in any way. The climber has not yet made any upward movement on that ladder. Additionally, although many good and positive qualities can be gained from association with peers, every person must nevertheless be able to tune into their own unique individuality. If we ignore or neglect our own proclivities, consciences, and deep personal values for the sake of blending in with a crowd – even a virtuous one – we risk eventual dissatisfaction, frustration, and potential dysfunction. Most importantly, a person must be vigilant to avoid the trap of adopting attitudes from his or her surrounding without passing it through the filter of one’s own beliefs, values, experiences, and weltanschauung. When we will be able to successfully and healthfully navigate our relationships with our environments, we will be able to be confident that we are not just the best of the worst.