The beginning of Parashat Noach teaches us that Noach was totally righteous in his generation. A famous midrash quoted by Rashi explores the deeper meaning of “in his generation.”
Rabbi Yochanan suggests that Noach was righteous in his generation but would not have been considered so had he lived in a different generation. Only when judged by the standards of his era and contrasted with the poor behaviour of his contemporaries was Noach considered righteous. Had he lived in a different age, he would been an average person.
Meanwhile, Reish Lakish argues that “in his generation” implies how much more righteous Noach would have been had he lived in a different era. If Noach was upstanding while surrounded by wicked people, he would have been even more righteous had he been surrounded by decent, honest people.
Regardless of the rabbinic debate, Noach fulfils what God asks of him. However, he never intercedes with God for the sake of humanity. It is perhaps no accident that at the end of the parashah named for Noach, we are already introduced to Abram (later to be called Abraham). Abram emerges as a proactive, righteous person, as exemplified in a number of situations, including when he separates his shepherds from Lot’s for the purpose of domestic peace, when he rescues Lot after he is taken captive in a battle by ancient kings, or when he challenges God and pleads for the innocents in Sodom and Gomorrah.
After the flood story, Noach withdraws from the new world, plants a vineyard and becomes self-indulgent. By contrast, after he is chosen by God to pioneer a new people, Abram becomes the paradigm of justice and going beyond the minimum.
While all people are considered the descendants of Noach, Jewish history and peoplehood start with the selection of Abram. Thus begins the Jewish mandate to behave in such a way that we truly are recognized as a beacon to the nations of the world.