The Torah says “Noach was a tzaddik in his time.” Rashi quotes two explanations from Chazal on Noach’s status: 1) If he had lived in the generation of Avraham Avinu, perhaps his righteousness would have been greater than Avraham’s; or 2) if he had lived in Avraham Avinu’s generation, he would have been considered nothing at all.
“Nothing at all” always bothered me, as being a tzaddik should certainly have some intrinsic value – besides its relevant value to the environment of the tzaddik. If that is the case, then even if Noach would have not been a “super-tzaddik” in Avram’s time, why do Chazal instead say he would have been nothing?
The Tiferes Shlomo answered this question in the following way: Imagine if Hashem came to speak to you and to nobody else in your generation. I suggest that we would feel important! Perhaps you would understand that Hashem is greater than you, but you definitely would consider yourself valuable if Hashem took the time to speak to you. We find, however, that when Avraham Avinu pleads the case of Sodom, he states the exact opposite: “I know that Hashem has spoken to me, as I am dust and ashes.” The Tiferes Shlomo explains that because of Avraham’s deep understanding of Hashem, he actually felt smaller and became an even humbler person. This legacy of becoming great and because of it feeling even more humble is something instilled in us as an inheritance from Avraham Avinu, because the traits that the Avos acquired, were passed down to us.
Noach on the other hand, to a degree, felt empowered by Hashem choosing him to be an oracle and messenger to the world. The new reading of the maimer chazal is as follows: There are those who understand this in a negative fashion – meaning, that if Noach would have been in the generation of Avraham he would have been affected by the humility of Avraham and considered himself nothing. But since he wasn’t in Avraham’s generation, he had certain feelings of self-importance.
We have just learned that we have an inborn power bequeathed to us from Avraham Avinu that we can ascend to great heights and at the same time become humbler. However, I have spoken to many people, and it seems to them that it is quite challenging to emulate this humility – it does not come automatically. But at least we know that we have been given the ability to succeed as a birthright, if we try because we are Avraham’s descendants.