The Possuk tells us that Noach was a good man. Oh, um, in his generation, that is. What kind of compliment is that? Its like telling someone how young and beautiful they look... compared to my grandmother! This is a back handed compliment. What does the possuk mean by expressing that Noach was a tzadik, but only when compared to the men of his generation? If he had lived in Avraham's time- what would he have been considered?
So Rashi gives two contradictory views. There are those that view Noach favorably, and claim that in a more righteous generation, he'd have been more righteous. Others feel that since his generation was so corrupt, and were occupied excessively with adultery and thievery, and he was a straight man, comparatively, he was head and shoulders above them. But had he lived with people that were holy and straight, he'd have been considered worthless.
I think I understand the problem. I live in Mexico City, in a mostly secular community. There are only a handful of observant Jews in my neighborhood. Being the 'Rebetzin' here, I often attend various events and affairs. While very elegant and beautifully prepared, these parties are not quite what Im accustomed to. For example, the smoke filled room, the immodest dress, the mingling of genders, and a racket of contemporary rock music screaming into the room throughout the evening. I usually don't stay long. Although I want to be there to support the host, I dream of returning to my secure little home- where its only ME and MY people and MY things. My own makom kodesh. Where I listen to MY music and eat MY food and wear MY clothes.
And at this point, the self righteouness kicks in.
Look at ME, and look at THEM. Theyre partying and smoking and sniffing, listening to percussion based Latin rap, while I'm baking challah and listening to Yeshiva Boys Choir. (or sometimes even a shiur!!) WOW!! LOOK AT THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THEM AND ME!
That's the problem. When we compare ourselves to people of a lower spiritual stature, of course we're better! We follow the Torah and thats the ultimate. I should be comparing myself to my friends in Eretz Yisrael! And my friends in New York! And anywhere where there's a thriving Jewish community, and then ask myself "AM I A TZADDIK COMPARED TO THEM TOO?" Possibly not. I have to look at myself relative to who I am, where I come from, and who I can be. Average isn't good enough. I can be much better. And I can be a positive influence on everyone around me.
Noach worked for 120 years building his boat. Get that- 120 years! And no one- not one person- was brought under his positive influence. Its no coincidence that the name Noach means comfortable. He was just plain comfortable with life. He was content with his spiritual level. He was satisfied with himself. He was feeling self righteous. And THAT was the problem.