Noach was a righteous man (ish tzaddik) in his generation; with God did Noach walk (Genesis 6:9). The classic Jewish commentators pay close attention to the wording of this characterization. Noach's generation was of course so evil, so full of violence, that God decided to destroy the world and start over.
So the commentators debate two interpretations of this verse at the very beginning of this week's reading. One reading is: Noach was a righteous man for his generation -- but in a different generation, we might not think of him so highly. The other reading is: Noach was a righteous man, which was particularly noteworthy since in his generation being righteous was especially difficult.
The first reading sounds like damning with faint praise. There's some basis for it in a comparison of Noach with Avraham. While Noach walked with God, God instructs Avraham "Walk before (literally: in front of) Me" (Genesis 17:1). Avraham argued with God when he learned that God intended to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah because of their evil. Noach did not push back against God when he learned about the fate of all humanity. So there's merit to the interpretation that Noach may have the best of a bad lot in his time, but compared to Avraham would not really stack up.
But there's another way of understanding the interpretation that interests me. It relates to a concept familiar in psychology and other areas, the notion of good enough.
The psychologist D. W. Winnicott coined the concept "good-enough mother" to describe a certain style of parenting by a mother for an infant. A good-enough mother is attuned to her baby's desires and development; knows how to respond to the hungry baby, and how to withhold a response just long enough to let the baby learn to experience separation without the feeling of abandonment.
The expectation is not that the mother responds instantly at all times to whatever the baby wants. In other words, the mother is not supposed to be a "good mother" all the time in the stereotypical sense. Nor is it that the mother does things exactly right all the time. The overall attitude and approach are what is important, rather than whether the baby is content at all times.
Good enough, in this sense, sounds pretty good. A mother (a parent) can't guarantee that life is perfect all the time, nor should she. Indeed, to be too "good" would be to overfunction, to not give space for the baby to experience things and grow.
There's a similar concept in computer science, of all things. In software development, the "Principle of Good Enough" favors the simple, workable solution to a programming program. Get it out there and start using it, and improvements can follow.
We are not all able to be absolutely good as people, or to be the best possible parent, friend, relative, or professional. Sometimes the "bests" come into conflict -- it's probably impossible to be the best doctor or the best plumber and at the same time the best spouse or parent. But good enough in each of these aspects of life is always attainable.
And good enough isn't about a particular moment, but the longer view. Everyone has a bad day at home or at work, but over time "good enough" is apparent.
Noach may not have been Avraham, but he got his important job done. He did enough to be God's partner in recreating the world. While we could imagine Noach having done other things, or doing more, he was good enough. And sometimes that is even enough to earn you the rank, for a time, of tzaddik.