Interestingly, in recounting the ten generations from Adam until Noach, the Torah writes the word, “va’yamos”, “and he died,” after each person that is mentioned. Upon mentioning the ten generations from Noach until Avraham however, the Torah uses the word, “ve’yechi,” and he lived,” referring to how long the individual lived. Why does the Torah make this distinction between the generations? Horav Yaakov Moshe Charlap, z.l., cites the Mishnah in Pirkei Avos 5:2, wherein it is stated: “There were ten generations from Adam to Noach which informs (us) how great is His (Hashem’s) patience, for all these generations continued to anger Him, until He finally brought upon them the waters of the flood.” In the following Mishnah the Tanna says, “There were ten generations from Noach to Avraham, which informs (us) how great is His patience, for all those generations continued to anger Him, until Avraham Avinu came and received the reward that was due them all.” While these Mishnayos are apparently similar, each demonstrating Hashem’s patience, the ending is glaringly different. Avraham Avinu received the reward for all of his predecessors, after which no cosmic destruction had occurred. Noach, however, was himself saved, while the rest of the world was obliterated.
The generations preceding Noach apparently had no zechusim, merits, not even one that they might have been able to combine with those of another generation. They were thoroughly wicked. Hence, the Torah writes, “va’yamos,” “ and they died.” They did nothing but sin; they left nothing but destruction. They died, gone forever from this world. The generations from Noach to Avraham had some merit. There was something to salvage. Avraham inherited their zechusim, in effect, giving them life. They lived on through Avraham Avinu. They did not die; they were not gone forever.
Wherein lay the difference between these two sets of generations? Horav Charlap explains that the generations preceding Noach sought to drive out tov, “good,” altogether. They grasped the evil way of life, and it became their lifestyle. Not good – only evil! Since there was nothing positive about their existence, there was no area in which Noach could give them mussar, reproach. In order for rebuke to be effective, some established relationship must exist between the sinner and the individual who is rebuking. Noach was a righteous, perfect individual while the others in his generation represented evil incarnate. There was no area of common ground. Consequently, Noach was compelled to leave by himself in the Ark.
In the generations preceding Avraham, however, the people were different. Their intentions were not to act totally evil. If they were able to do the right thing, if they could act correctly, they would. They had no qualms about evil, but it was not their first course of action. They had some merit. Avraham had people with whom to speak. They did not die; they lived on in Avraham.