Rashi, commenting on the opening verse of Parashat Noach, famously cites two views among Chazal (Sanhedrin 108a) regarding the Torah’s description of Noach as a righteous person “be-dorotav” (“in his generations”). One view explains this term as expressing special praise for Noach’s ability to live righteously in a generation characterized by depravity, indicating that had he lived among pious people, he would have achieved even greater heights of righteousness. According to the other view, however, the Torah added this word to moderate its praise of Noach, indicating that he was considered righteous only in comparison to his contemporaries, whereas in other generations, he would not have been deemed especially pious.
Many writers found this second view surprising. The Torah speaks glowingly of Noach’s piety, on account of which God decided to spare mankind despite the widespread sin and corruption. Why, these writers wondered, would some Sages interpret the word “be-dorotav” as qualifying Noach’s praise, rather than magnifying it?
This question led some writers to offer creative readings of this view cited by Rashi. One such drastic suggestion was proposed by Rav Avraham Yehoshua Heshel of Apta, in his Oheiv Yisrael, where he explains that this view refers to Noach’s own perception of himself. According to this view, the Torah does not intend to mitigate its praise of Noach, but rather to teach that Noach himself humbly acknowledged that he was considered pious only in relation to his contemporaries. Rather than pride himself over his righteous stature, he recognized that he had far more to achieve, and that his moral superiority over the evildoers of his time did not absolve him of the need to reach higher. And thus when Rashi cites the “dorshin li-gnai” – those who interpreted the word “be-dorotav” in a manner which is unflattering to Noach – this refers to Noach’s own mindset, the way he saw himself and assessed his accomplishments.
While it is difficult to accept this reading as the actual intent of Chazal, nevertheless, this insight of the Rebbe of Apta offers us an important lesson regarding our ambitions and aspirations. It instructs that we must not set our expectations of ourselves based on what we see people around us doing, on the standards of contemporary society or even of our narrow peer group, but rather based on our potential and capabilities. Our feelings of pride over our achievements and standards must not lead us to complacency or arrogance, and to lazily squander our potential to accomplish more. It is certainly legitimate, and important, to be “dorshin li-shvach,” to feel proud of what we’ve achieved, but only if we are also “dorshin li-gnai” – fully cognizant of the fact that we are capable of achieving even more, and committed to making an effort to do so.