“Es ha’Elokim hishalech Noach,” explains the Netziv, means that Noach did not just do good because it was right, but he did it l’shem shamayim. “Noach tzadik tamim haya b’dorosav…” The gemara says that if someone gives tzedaka on condition that his child recover from illness, that person is a tzadik gamur. Even if the person acts and gives she’lo lishma, not purely l’shem shamayim, he is still called a tzadik. He can’t, however, be called a tamim. Noach was a “tzadik tamim,” a title the Torah justifies by telling us, “Es ha’Elokim hishalech Noach,” that he acted l’shem shamayim.
Just being a tzadik on your own is a great thing, but it’s not enough. The flood is called “mei Noach” because Noach bears responsibility for not doing more, for not davening for his generation and not trying to influence them to change. We think Noach being given refuge in the ark was a great thing, a tremendous zechus, but Rav Reuvain Katz suggests that there was an element of punishment in it as well. Imagine Noach sitting day after day in that cramped ark: he had no way of knowing how long he would be there for, no way of knowing whether he had enough food for himself and the animals with him, no sunlight or fresh water. Supposedly Seattle has the highest s uicide rate because it always rains there. Imagine what living in an ark for a year of a mabul must have been like! G-d commands Noach, “Bo atah v’kol beischa el ha’teivah,” (7:1) enter the ark, “ki OSCHA ra’isi tzadik lifanay” – because I see that YOU are a tzadik – YOU ALONE! You lived a life surrounded by a society of shmutz where everyone needs kiruv and chizuk and you didn’t have an influence or impact on even one single person? Not one?! That’s not acceptable. You will get saved because you are a tzadik, but it will be in a cramped, unpleasant ark, with no small amount of suffering involved.
We have the flip side in our parsha as well. “Va’Yizkor Elokim es Noach… va’yashoku hamayim.” (8:1) In reality, had it not been for Noach, it sounds like the flood would have continued for longer… maybe indefinitely. Hashem remembered Noach, and as a result of that one tzadik, the flood stopped for the entire world. Rav Reuvain Katz writes that he spoke on Rosh haShana in 1916 amidst a shortage of food and danger on all sides from WWI which was then raging, and he chose as his theme this pasuk of “vayizkor Elkim es Noach…” which is mentioned in zichronos of musaf. What can we do to change things when there is global turmoil and upheaval surrounding us? The answer is that we can change ourselves. One tzadik, one individual, is enough to cause Hashem to stop a mabul or a famine or even a war, even if no one else deserves it. What happens in the world does not determine the fate of the tzadik; it is the tzadik who determines the fate of the world.
“Eileh – poseil es harishonim.” Chazal darshen that the word “eileh” usually means the pasuk or parsha supersedes whatever came before it. Parshas Braishis, writes the Sefas Emes, is the parsha of “eileh toldos shamayim va’aretz.” It is the story of the creation of the cosmos, in which man has but one chapter. “Eileh toldos Noach” supersedes that story. It is the story of the tzadik, in which the (re)creation of the world is a chapter. We are not actors playing parts in the story of the world; the world is an actor playing a part in our story. What happens is entirely up to us.