Koheles (Ecclesiastes) tells us what is evident from the narrative of Creation: that G-d created man yashar — upright. But man corrupted himself, thereby corrupting the world that was created for him. Since then, it has been a long, tortuous struggle toward reclaiming the perfection of Eden.
After the first sin of the Tree of Knowledge, mankind began a rapid downward spiral toward destruction. Kayin (Cain) murdered his brother, Hevel (Abel), introducing a more profound element of corruption into the human race. For a time, the descendants of Adam’s third and most righteous son, Sheis (Seth), kept themselves apart from the descendants of Kayin and thereby preserved their purity. But over time, the generations intermingled, until the spark of G-dliness within man became all but extinguished.
Within ten generations, HaShem saw that the wickedness of Man was great upon the earth, and that every product of the thoughts of his heart was eternally evil. And HaShem reconsidered having made Man on earth, and He felt profound anguish. And HaShem said, “I will blot out Man whom I created from the face of the earth…”
But Noach (Noah) found grace in HaShem’s eyes.
What was accomplished by Noach finding grace in G-d’s eyes? He did not stop the inexorable decline of the human race. He did not convince a single person to repent. He did not delay the destruction of the world by a single instant.
But Noach achieved true greatness by not allowing himself to become corrupted by the corruption all around him. By retaining his own inner purity and righteousness in a world of moral chaos, by resisting the influence of a human society that had lost its own sense of humanity, Noach succeeded in a uniquely heroic accomplishment. By not becoming a murderer in a society of murderers or a thief in a society of thieves, by not allowing the distorted values and mores of his time to erode the values and ethics that had been handed down to him from the Highest Authority, Noach saved himself and, by doing so, he saved mankind as well.
We often feel that we don’t have much impact on the world around us. Sometimes, as in the times of Noach, it is enough that we do not allow the world to have an impact on us. As we depart the holiday season and enter the darkening days of winter, it’s a lesson we should all take to heart.
More insights into Parshas Bereishis can be found here.