In Parashat Noach, the designation of Noah as an, ish tzaddik tamim, a “blameless” or “wholehearted person in his age” (Genesis 6:9) provides an opportunity to focus on a biblical model for a behavioral ideal. Although Noah’s inner life does not match his behavior. Commentators frequently criticized his conduct, including a lack of compassion and incest.1 Nevertheless, the designation of Noah as wholehearted provides grist for understanding the biblical view of ideal behavior.
The Hebrew word, tamim, “whole heartedness,” resonates throughout sacred Jewish literature and is favorably utilized to describe a number of biblical protagonists. The meaning of the variety of closely related words — t’mimei, t’mimah, and t’mimim — is best captured by the opening line of Psalm 119: Ashrei t’mimei-darech, hahol’chim b’torat Adonai, “Happy are those whose way is blameless [t’mimei-darech], who follow the teaching of the Eternal” (Psalm 119:1).
Of course, there are exceptions to rules. Of the Passover Haggadah’s four sons, the one who does not know how to ask is called a tam, translated from the Hebrew as a “simple son,” and portrayed as guileless, immature, inexperienced, and without much, if any, intellectual capacity. His naïve, innocent question, Mah zot? — “What is this?” — casts him as a simpleton who is led to an uncomplicated answer appropriate to his unsophisticated level of understanding. However, this portrayal of t’mimut as the opposite of wise is inaccurate because in most other texts, being a tam is defined by purity, truth, genuineness, being unblemished and blameless, and having integrity (see: Proverbs 10:29). Deuteronomy (18:13) best describes this more expansive and accurate meaning in the command: Tamim tih’yeh im Adonai Elohecha, “You must be wholehearted [tamim] with the Eternal your God.”
Abraham was commanded by God to “walk along before Me and be pure of heart [vehyeih tamim]” (Genesis 17:1). Jacob was described as an ish tam, “a gentle or mild-mannered man” (Genesis 25:27). In two instances, God describes Job as tam v’yashar, “a blameless and upright man who fears God and shuns evil” (Job 1:8; 2:3).
Jacob ben Meir, known as Rabeinu Tam, grandson of the medieval commentator Rashi and the greatest of the Baalei Tosafot (skilled commentators whose insights form the core of Talmud study) was a man of integrity and wholeness, and certainly not a simpleton. Centuries later, Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav reported that he spent all of his life trying to achieve t’mimut, “purity, integrity, undivided faithfulness, and wholeheartedness.” Medieval commentator Bachya ibn Pakuda, the author of Chovot HaLevavot, The Duties of the Heart, further explained the ideal of t’mimut as “…complete harmony between inner and outward actions…. This is what the Holy Writ (in Psalms) refers to in the term “whole-hearted,” when it admonishes us to be “whole-hearted with the Eternal your God,” and commends “he that holech tamim — walks uprightly, works righteousness, and speaks truth in his heart” (Ps. 15:2).
Rabbi Jacob Isaac Horowitz, the Seer of Lublin, once asked: “Should a person strive for greatness or wholeness?” He explained using the example of two challot, one large but sliced and one small but whole. It is customary to bless the whole one because wholeness is more valuable than greatness. By extension, Rabbi Yitzhak Elchanan of Kovno cited the familiar verse from Psalms (19:8), Torat Adonai t’mimah, “The Torah of God is perfect,” whole, or complete, to explain that a Torah missing even one letter is pasul, “flawed,” and cannot be used because the missing letter destroys its t’mimut, its “wholeness.” Furthermore, so important was tamim, “integrity in Jewish law,” that an entire proceeding was debarred if one witness was disqualified. Similarly, when an individual misses one opportunity to sanctify life, one act that strays from the highest ideals of the Torah, then something is lacking in that person.
T’mimut, “wholeness,” in ourselves and in a broken world in need of tikkun, “fixing,” is the model that Noah and other wholehearted righteous individuals provide Jews in every age. Today, more than ever, the nature of an ish tamim, a blameless or wholehearted person, should serve as a reminder of the noblest ways in which Jews ought to conduct their lives.
1. See “Gleanings,” W. Gunther Plaut, gen. ed., The Torah: A Modern Commentary, rev. ed. (NY: URJ Press, 2005), pp. 80-81
Rabbi Stephen S. Pearce, Ph.D. is Senior Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Emanu-El of San Francisco and a faculty member of the Fromm Institute for Lifelong Learning at the University of San Francisco and the Beyond The Walls: Spiritual Writing Program at Kenyon College. He is the author of Flash of Insight: Metaphor and Narrative in Therapy and other articles, poems, and books.
We are all a little bit broken.
Life’s struggles and challenges and changes wear and tear at our spirits. We face disappointments — in others or ourselves; defeat makes us feel, at times, as if the weight of the world is on our shoulders. Inescapably, life takes its toll. Yet it is not a matter of being whole, but rather about how, in our brokenness, we respond.
What is Torah trying to tell us this week in Parashat Noach?
How could Noah be wholehearted after all he has been through? What would it mean for him to be blameless in such a chamas-laden,1 violent world?
We cannot help but wonder if Noah’s horror as a witness to human indifference and hate caused him to turn a blind eye, an indifferent spirit. Remember, he is not only described as tamim — wholehearted, but also as tzaddik b’dorotav — righteous in his generation. The qualifier (in his generation) is key, as Midrash Rabbah posits: “…and some say this is to his discredit, for if he lived in a generation of the truly righteous, he would have been thought of as nothing” (B’reishit Rabbah, 30:9).
Relatively righteous at best, Rabbi Morris Adler senses Noah’s detachment:
“Nowhere did Noah show a feeling of sadness that an entire generation was to be lost…. At no time did a word of concern escape his lips.… It was as if he stood apart from the rest of the world” (Morris Adler, The Voice Still Speaks [NY: Bloch Pub. Co., 1969], pps. 19-21).
Noah was an ish tamim when the only compassionate reaction was to be broken.
How could he be wholehearted with the Eternal when his world was falling apart?
How can we?
An ish tamim follows God’s word to a T, and builds himself an ark.
A broken-hearted, sensitive soul looks around, and tries to teach the world to swim.
1. The word chamas — chet-mem-samech — means violence
Rabbi Jeffrey J. Sirkman is senior rabbi at Larchmont Temple in Larchmont, NY.
Noach, Genesis 6:9−11:32
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 56–91; Revised Edition, pp. 57–83
The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, pp. 35–58
Haftarah, Rosh Chodesh, Isaiah 66:1–13, 23
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp.1,684–86; Revised Edition, pp.1,492–94