The Torah records that upon returning to land after the Flood, Noach planted a vine. In Its description of this episode, the Torah describes him as ‘Ish ha’adamah’ – the man of the ground. The Midrash asserts that Moshe was greater than Noach because, earlier in the Torah, Noach was called ‘Ish tzaddik’ (a righteous man) and the new description of Ish Adamah represents a lowering of his status. In contrast, Moshe is initially called Ish Mitzri (Egyptian man) but is later described as Ish Elokim, (man of G-d). The Midrash does not address why Noach experienced a worsening in his status, nor why Moshe merited a rise in his standing.
The Meshech Chachma offers a fascinating explanation of this Midrash, explaining a fundamental difference between Noach and Moshe. He points out that there are two general ways in avodat HaShem (service of G-d), with regard to focus on oneself or others. One way is to focus on one’s own, personal avodah and contemplation of HaShem, while the other is to be involved in tsarchei tsibbur (the needs of the community) and to nullify one’s own spiritual needs for the sake of others.
He adds that one would assume that the one who focuses on his own avodah will rise higher and higher in his spiritual level and the one who focuses on others, will experience a deterioration in his level. Nevertheless, the Meshech Chachma explains that Noach focused on his own spirituality and did not rebuke all the people who were sinning.
Indeed, the Midrash says that because of this failing, despite his own personal greatness, Noach deserved to be destroyed along with everyone else but HaShem showed him chein (grace) and spared him because of his offspring.
In contrast, Moshe Rabbeinu began on a relatively low level, hence his description as an Ish Mitzri, but he rose up exponentially, because he was willing to sacrifice himself for the Jewish people when he killed the Mitzri who was beating the Jew. Consequently, he was later attributed the lofty title of Ish Elokim.
It still needs to be explained why one who focuses on his own avodat HaShem goes down in his standing, and one who works for the community, goes up. On a metaphysical level, the reason seems to be that the Jewish people are one spiritual entity, and therefore a person cannot isolate himself in his own service, while ignoring everyone else. Accordingly, one who tries to do this, is not fulfilling his own personal role as part of the Jewish people, and his spiritual standing deteriorates. In contrast, one who works for others, does fulfil this role, and rises up in his level.
It seems that these developments can also be somewhat explained on a common sense level. The nature of man is to be social, to be involved with other people. The Torah directs man in the ideal way to do this, by helping his fellow physically and spiritually. When a person solely focuses on himself, he is at risk of becoming selfish in his attitude. In addition, since man’s nature is to intermingle with others, there is the possibility that one who does not do this, will at some point become stale, and consequently will deteriorate in his learning, and general avodat Hashem.
In contrast, focusing on others can help a person grow more in his own avoda. This is borne out with regards to Torah learning by the commentators’ explanation of the Talmud that one learns the most from his students. They explain that when a person has to teach others, he feels more of a necessity to gain clarity in his learning, so he can effectively transmit it to his students.
According to some commentators, this is the explanation of the Talmud: “Rebbi says, ‘I learnt a great deal of Torah from my teachers, more from by friends, and the most from my students.” Students force a teacher to attain a higher level of understanding and the teacher is likely to be more motivated to know the material with great clarity.
The Steipler Gaon strongly emphasized this point: An avreich was not succeeding in his learning so he asked the Steipler Gaon if he should continue in kollel or begin teaching. The Steipler answered that in the past everybody wanted to teach, and a person who did not find a position in teaching continued to learn in kollel. He then said, “That every Gadol Hador of the past grew greatly from giving shiurim.” Teaching is also a great tool in helping one remember his learning.
The Steipler once advised another avreich to teach a shiur in Yeshiva katana, and explained that when one teaches others a piece of learning it is equivalent to learning it twenty times. He said further, “I know from my own experience that that which I learnt myself I have forgotten, but that which I taught to others I remember it to this very day.”
Rav Yitzchak Berkovits adds, that as well as improving one’s own learning, giving to others can help a person renew his motivation and excitement in spiritual matters. This may be because, as we stated above, human nature is to want to share and intermingle with others.
The Meshech Chochma’s explanation does not restrict his praise of others to those who teach Torah, rather to people who are involved in communal needs. Doing this can also help a person keep a person from becoming stale if it gives him renewed vigor in his avodat HaShem.
Needless to say, the practical application of these ideas varies greatly among people, and each person needs to discern his own unique path with guidance from a Rebbe. However, the general principle is true – that one who works for others as well as himself, has the potential to experience a great rise in his avodat HaShem.