A student of Reb Yechezkel of Kozmir once got a job as a rabbi. Before he began his new position he went to his Rebbe to get a Bracha that he should be successful, and that people shouldn't give him a hard time.
Reb Yechezkel opened a Chumash to parshas Noach, and read:
אֵלֶּה תּוֹלְדֹת נֹחַ נֹחַ אִישׁ צַדִּיק תָּמִים הָיָה בְּדֹרֹתָיו אֶת הָאֱלֹהִים הִתְהַלֶּךְ נֹחַ
This is the history of the generations of Noah. Noah was a righteous man, whole, among the people of his time. Noah walked with God.
He then turned to Rashi, who writes:
Some of our Rabbis explain this pasuk to Noach's credit: he was righteous even in his generation; it follows that had he lived in a generation of righteous people he would have been even more righteous owing to the force of good example. Others, however, explain it to his discredit: in comparison with his own generation he was accounted righteous, but had he lived in the generation of Abraham he would have been accounted as of no importance.
"Apparently," said the Rebbe, "even for a person who the Torah says is completely righteous, a צַדִּיק תָּמִים, at the moment they have a position of importance there will be people that approve, and people that disapprove."
It's an all-to-true observation of leadership.
Of course, attempting to resolve the ambiguity in the Pasuk is a fair endeavor. When the Torah tells us that Noach was a tzadik in "his generation", does that add to his righteousness or detract from it?
Let's consider: The Torah clearly tells us that Noach was a tzadik. He walked with Hashem. He alone is saved from the flood; he is the father of the new world. That's pretty good! And since when do we have to look so intensely to figure out whether or not he was such a tzadik?!
Drashos and commentaries throughout the ages have dealt with this problem; all suggesting that his flaws and faults make the ambiguity of his righteousness obvious.
Some have argued that Noach's end, getting drunk and becoming an "Ish Adama" call his tzadik status into question. Others argue that his lack of obvious entreating on behalf of his generation preclude him from being an absolute tzadik. Yet others argue that his failure to engage in the world after the flood is his downfall.
There's a lot to say about Noach. A casual read of the parsha reveals that he is a complex character. The questions remains unresolved. Which one is correct? Is Noach really a tzadik? Is he just the best of a bad generation? Which one is true?
The answer, of course, is that it's complicated. Because summing up, judging and evaluating a person is always complicated. Noach is a devout follower of the word of Hashem; he is impervious to the pressures of his generation. He single handedly builds an ark and sustains all life for a year, with immense self sacrifice. Does he fail? Sure. Does he succeed? Undoubtably! So which one is it?
Perhaps our estimation of Noach says much more about us than it does about him.
And the same is true about everyone we meet. There is no one in our lives, no-one ever, that isn't a complex amalgamation of שבח and גנאי - of praise and denigration. The story of Noach simply asks us: Which do you see?
The Toras Chaim of Kosov notes that Rashi himself has an opinion as to which perspective is correct. He notes that when Rashi informs us of this duality, he writes:
יש מרבותינו דורשים לשבח... ויש דורשים לגנאי
Some of our teachers explain his praise, and some explain his denigration.
Our teachers explain how to praise, others, do the opposite. The question that Rashi is posing is: who is your Rebbe? Is your role model the cynic? The scoffer? The critic? Or is your Rebbe the optimist? The humanist? The one who is looking for the best in other people? Both approaches are accurate, to an extent. And the choice of which perspective to highlight is open to us all.
And so Rashi tells us: Our teachers are the ones that say Noach is a tzadik.
This orientation towards people is baked into the most lasting impression of the Parsha: The Rainbow. The Torah tells us that the rainbow is a sign to remind us of Hashem's promise not to destroy the world for our sins. Indeed, in perfectly righteous generations, rainbows were never seen.
But the schism between how the rainbow appears, and the reason for it, is difficult to navigate. Hashem shows us a rainbow as Mussar, as rebuke. But what a strange sign of rebuke! A beautiful paining in the sky is hardly a fitting reminder of our downward spiral.
Perhaps like any good parent or teacher, when Hashem wants to give us Mussar, He chooses to show us the beauty of the world, the majesty of His creations. The rainbow is a reminder that we should live לשבח - with praise - it's the symbol of positive, colorful growth. It's a hug, it's not a finger wag. Ultimately, Hashem Himself is the Rebbe who is דורש לשבח - who explains how wonderful we are and could be.
A number of months ago, Sivan Rahav Meir shared the following story from Avinoam Hirsch which illustrates this point beautifully:
“At school, I gave a certificate of excellence to one student, but by mistake I sent a notification about it to the mother of another student: ‘Bravo! Your child received a certificate of excellence!’. By the time I realized my mistake and tried to delete it, I already got an answer: ‘You do not understand what your message did for me. It is the happiest thing that has happened to me this week’. I realized that her child is going to go home without really having a certificate of excellence, which he really did not deserve. That day I had even asked him to leave the classroom because he did not stop disturbing the class.
I went to him and told him what had happened, and then said: ‘Listen, you are the first student to whom I am going to loan a certificate of excellence. You do not deserve it, but I believe that your behavior in the upcoming week will justify it’. When he heard that I told his mother that he got a certificate of excellence, his eyes lit up and he said: ‘Just last night my mother cried that I make her so sad, after she talked with my English teacher. Thank you. I will not let you down’.
Throughout the following week, this naughty student, who had always ruined the classes, turned into an angel. The school’s educational consultant asked me if his mother started giving him Ritalin, and I answered: ‘No. He is on a much stronger stuff which burns inside of him. It is called trust’.”
There is always the option to denigrate, to put people down. But the option to lift each other up is always always present. Hashem should help us to live לשבח - to learn from Him to see the best. Those who believe it should be our teachers and we should become such teachers to world around us.