The Torah describes Noach as having been righteous “Be’dorotav” – “in his generation.” Rashi cites two views in explaining this term. One opinion explains that Noah was righteous despite the fact that he lived among corrupt, sinful people, and if he had lived among righteous people, he would have achieved a far higher level of piety. Others, however, explained that to the contrary, Noah was righteous only in relation to the wicked people among whom he lived. If he had lived in the times of Abraham Abinu, he would not have been regarded as a righteous man.
What was Noah’s flaw? Why would he have not been considered righteous in Abraham’s time?
Several commentators explain that Noah’s failure lay in his inability to inspire his contemporaries to change. He spent 120 years constructing an ark, and yet, throughout that period, he did not convince even one person to repent; not a single person was moved to undergo Teshuba by the knowledge that G-d would be bringing a flood because of the people’s sins. This failure compromised Noah’s stature, such that in the generation of Abraham, he would not have stood out as a righteous figure.
The question, however, remains, why did Noah fail in this regard? Why was he unable to inspire and lead people away from sin?
Rav Yaakov Kaminetzky (1891-1986) suggested that Noah did not properly understand the people. He criticized them for worshipping idols, without recognizing the root cause of the problem. The people worshipped idols not out of strong ideological conviction, but rather because idol worship allows engaging in immorality. In order to avoid the need for restraint, the people worshipped idols which, they claimed, allowed unrestrained indulgence. Noah failed to understand this, and thus his efforts to teach the people were ineffective.
It was because of this failure, Rav Yaakov notes, that one view cited by Rashi considers Noah less of a Sadik. A true Sadik is somebody who deeply cares about and loves others, to the point where he keenly understands them and why they act as they do. The fact that Noah failed to effectively criticize the people demonstrates that he did not sufficiently understand them, a result of his inadequate concern. And thus while he was certainly a Sadik, he would not have stood out in the times of Abraham Abinu, who truly cared about and understood the people around him, such that he was able to effect real and meaningful change.