To most children, Noach is portrayed as a great Tzaddik who, along with his family, was spared from the Mabul. In fact, the Ramban, Bechor Shor, Ralbag, Radak, and many other Parshanim believe that Noach was a full-fledged Tzaddik.
However, this rosy view of Noach is not shared by all commentators, and some, the most famous being Rashi, disagree. Rashi, commenting on “Tamim Hayah BeDoratov,” “[Noach was] perfect in his generation” (Bereishit 6:9), quotes two opinions in found in the Gemara (Sanhedrin 108a). Reish Lakish explains this phrase as being positive, i.e. that Noach was great even in his corrupt generation and would have been greater still if he had lived in a greater generation surrounded by other righteous people. Rabi Yochanan, on the other hand, treats this phrase as a negative. Noach was great only in comparison to those around him; if he had been in the generation of Avraham, he would not have been considered a great person.
Another possible deficiency of Noach is that the Pasuk tells us, “Et HaElokim Hit’haleich Noach,” “Noach walked with Hashem” (ibid.). Although at first glance this seems to be something very positive, Rashi explains otherwise. He contrasts Noach’s walking with Hashem to Hashem telling Avraham “Hit’haleich LeFanay,” “Walk before Me” (Bereishit 17:1). While Noach needed support and therefore walked with God, Avraham was able to strengthen himself to walk before God on his own. An example of this is found later in the Parasha, where Rashi clarifies why the Torah adds the seemingly superfluous statement that Noach entered the Teivah “MiPenei Mai HaMabul,” “because of the flood waters” (Bereishit 7:7). Rashi explains that Noach did not enter of his own volition because he was lacking in faith. Therefore, he waited until Hashem pushed him to enter the Teivah by beginning the flood. The Radak rejects this notion, claiming that Noach was pure and without deficiencies.
The Imrei Shefer goes even asserts that Noach should have prevented the Mabul from happening by objecting to his generation’s practices. Unlike Avraham, who, as Rashi (Bereishit 12:5) comments, spread Hashem’s name and converted people, Noach didn’t make any attempt to better his generation.
How do so many Parshanim say great things about Noach - that he was a Tzaddik both Bein Adam LaMakom and Bein Adam LaChaveiro – when Rashi points to Noach’s deficiencies?
An answer may be formulated based on the Netziv. The Gemara in Berachot (7a) grapples with the issue of theodicy - why some righteous people suffer while others prosper, and some wicked individuals prosper and others suffer. The Gemara explains (according to one opinion) that a full-fledged Tzaddik (Tzaddik Gamur) will prosper, a full-fledged Rasha will suffer, a fairly righteous person (Tzaddik SheEino Gamur) will suffer, and a fairly wicked person will prosper. The Netziv defines a full-fledged Tzaddik as one whose nature is to be evil but works on himself until he overcomes his inborn inclination completely. The opposite is true with a full-fledged Rasha. Perhaps Noach was an example of a Tzaddik Gamur; originally, his nature was to be evil, but eventually it became second nature for him to do good.
While the Ramban subscribes to this idea, stating that Noach was the opposite of evil, Rashi and the Imrei Shefer seemingly do not. I suggest that Noach was not a Tzaddik Gamur, but he was close to it. He was not as great as Avraham. Although he had many great attributes, he also had some deficiencies, such as a lack of fervor and drive. Therefore, even though he was saved from the Mabul and was a truly righteous person, he suffered much difficulty in his life, such as being mocked for making the Teivah (see Rashi to 6:14 s.v. Aseih), experiencing the trauma of the Mabul, and being defiled by his son, Cham (9:22; see Sanhedrin 70a). Thus, while Rashi is correct in stating that Noach had some shortcomings, Noach was for the most part an outstanding Tzaddik
A possible issue with this explanation is that although it explains how Noach was imperfect in some respects, it does not explain how Noach can be identified as being Tamim, complete. After all, he was not perfect. The Torah Temimah offers two answers. Firstly, one can explain Tamim not as being complete in deeds, but rather as being born complete in the body, i.e. having a Brit Milah (see Avot DeRabi Natan chapter 2). The basis for this is that Avraham was not called Tamim until he had a Brit Milah of his own (17:1-2). A second explanation is demonstrated through the Taamei HaMikra (“trop”), which, in addition to providing musical form, determines punctuation. According to the Taamei HaMikra, “Tamim” flows with “Hayah BeDorotav.” This serves as a basis for the opinion that Noach was Tamim only in respect to his generation, but relative to other Tzaddikim, he was not Tamim.
Oftentimes, we find ourselves in the same struggle as Noach, fighting our natural inclination towards evil. Rav Moshe Feinstein once said that originally, he was a very short-tempered individual. However, he was able to transform and elevate himself, and he developed into an extremely humble and kind man. We should always strengthen ourselves in this respect and remember that even if we aren’t perfect and fail to change our nature completely, we should not despair. For even Noach, who was unsuccessful in changing himself completely, was called a Tzaddik.