There are places in the world where you can expect to find good role models. Places like Israel, where holy tzaddikim (righteous people) walk the streets all the time. But then there are other places where you do not expect to find good role models. There are places like Los Angeles and Miami, where body and celebrity worship is all the rage; there are places like India, where the struggle just to survive is so fierce that it becomes each man for himself.
The truth is, that in every place we can choose to find good role models and to become good role models ourselves. And the truth is, in most cases, we don’t have to look so hard to find ordinary heroes in our everyday lives. In Buenos Aires, Argentina, you find synagogues holding Friday night kiddush so that poor people in the community will be able to have a kosher Shabbat dinner without any shame or embarrassment. In India, you can find a kind local willing to give you a ride to the train station so you don’t have to walk or pay for a taxi. In Australia, if you fall down, people rush to help you up. These are everyday people going about their business, yet doing kind deeds for others with no fanfare or fuss.
But there was a time when there truly were no good role models. In the time of Noach, there really were no good role models. Noach had nobody to look up to. So what did he do? He looked straight to G-d, the ultimate role model. And from that, he learned to be a good role model himself. G-d taught him compassion and sensitivity. We see that it took Noach 120 years to build his ark. This is not because he was lazy or incompetent. This was because G-d, in His infinite mercy, was waiting, hoping that someone would see what Noach was up to, ask what he was doing, hear the warnings, and repent. But Nineveh this was not. Still, when nobody repented and the floods came, Noach was reminded by G-d to take his sons onto the ark with him, and then his wife and daughters-in-law, to teach that the men and women would have to stay separated for the duration of the journey. Noach was a role model: he could not enjoy pleasure with his spouse while the world was being destroyed. Every single one of G-d’s creatures, however off the Torah path, is precious.
Sometimes it’s tempting to be swept up in the modern culture of adoring exactly the wrong role models. In America, we glorify singers and stars like Lady Gaga and Beyonce, whose behavior is, from a Torah perspective, truly disgusting. In Australia, the unofficial national anthem is Waltzing Matilda, a song about a man who steals a sheep and then commits suicide: two sad and terrible Torah violations. And we don’t need to look very far in the Arab world to find idolized villains, like Ahmadinejad. It’s so easy to be swept up in the fad, in the fashion of admiring the wrong thing. Yet, we must always remember not to admire and try to be like the wrong people. If we cannot find a tzaddik around us to emulate, then we must follow Noach’s example and look directly to G-d himself.
Even if we are in the most remote parts of the world, we have to remember that it is our job as Jews to be a light unto the nations. It is our job to be the role models. We must become like Noach, we must become like Avraham. Even in a place where there are no good role models for us, we must still be good role models for others.