We all know the ancient rabbinic debate concerning the Bible’s Noah: Rabbi Yohanan argues that Noah was only “blameless in his age” but would fare poorly in contrast to his descendant Abraham in a later age; Resh Lakish defends Noah, pointing out that this man would have even been a paragon of righteousness in a generation of good people.
The debate between these two great rabbis only highlights the ambiguity with which many generations of Jews have understood Noah. Writing today, I tend toward the more charitable and less suspicious reading of Noah stated by Resh Lakish.
Noah is a tragic figure. Noah is a hero. Noah, ultimately, is human.
Our Bible’s heroes are never perfect, and we learn from their flaws. Even Moses, the greatest prophet and leader of our people, could not escape his humanity and its flaws.
The man who walked into the ark with his family and the world’s animals was not the same man who walked out of the ark after God’s destruction of almost all living beings.
Noah entered the ark as a righteous man and emerged months later as the epitome of a survivor. While feeding the animals in the ark and tending to his family’s needs, Noah must have heard the cries of the drowning, witnessed the collapse of the natural order, and bore witness to the chaos that accompanied God’s new plan for a better world.
This was a cataclysm of an order never experienced by any human being before Noah. Did the roar of the lions, the squawking of the ducks, the arguments over the dinner table with his wife and sons – did all this mundane noise drown out the roar and thunder of destruction? Noah built the ark in silence. Did he ever regret that the denizens of an evil world did not repent and join him? I believe he did. No human being could have survived the destruction of the world and being left alone by God to rebuild that world without bearing scars and guilt for being chosen to live on amid all the death.
The logic and justice of God’s actions are often beyond question.
But playing games with theodicy is hazardous. We are relieved the evil is wiped away and punished. But the difficult experience of this justice remains. The ark built by Noah was a safe haven and a refuge. Yet, a refuge can be transformed into a prison, into solitary confinement.
Noah, in chapter 9 of Genesis, was “the first to plant a vineyard” – and the first human to become drunk.
No doubt this account explained the beginning of the cultivation of grapes and their transformation into a drink of joy and even amnesia. Perhaps it was just trial and error – the first experience of alcohol’s benefits and dangers. I would argue that Noah drank from the fruit of his vineyard to grapple with the realities of survival and those of Divine destiny.
Did the wine he drank give him a few moments of solace, of forgetting the unforgettable cataclysm he witnessed and lived to recount and remember? Was the guilt of survival too much to bear? Did the Noah who offered sacrifice to God after emerging from the ark – the same Noah to whom God promised that never again would humanity be destroyed – did this Noah begin to doubt God once the reality of survival set in to his existence and his psyche? Let us not belittle the trauma that Noah lived through. Let us not minimize this true hero’s humanity.
Noah’s bravery – to stand up for justice in a world that mocked and despised it – likely heightened his despair over the destruction of an evil that could have been averted had a corrupt civilization repented.
There is another reason Noah found comfort in wine. He had a tremendous task – to be ordained by God to regenerate and rebuild the world. Did Noah want to escape this destiny? Did he just want to be left alone to tend his vineyard? Did his son Ham not only witness his drunk father’s nakedness – already a dishonor of respect for a parent – but told his brothers in order to mock his father’s humanity, vulnerability and supposed passivity? We cannot glean this from the text.
But these passages in our Bible remind me of S.Y. Agnon’s “Fable of the Goat,” a story of the unbridgeable gap between the generation of the fathers and the generation of the sons. The lack of empathy in Ham’s actions, his condemnation of the old, disposable world of his father, the egotism of his youth in contrast to the extreme old age of his father – this lack of empathy, the mocking of the survivor for his passivity and for his attempt to forget the burdens of awesome responsibilities if only for a moment – this is simply unforgivable.
Ham’s rejection of the past simply earns him the curse of servitude.
As for Noah and for all of us: The temptation to escape the burdens of survival and destiny is seductive.
Drugs, alcohol, hedonism, the gods of politics that failed, the will to be overwhelmingly powerful without responsibility – these are avenues of escape from trauma and from God-given obligations. We escape into the magic elixir of leveling the playing field and toy with dangerous ideas that all is equal, none should be censured, all behavior is permissible, no human being should be judged.
In a word, this is a moral equivalence that shields our eyes from recognizing evil where it exists and rooting it out.
Jews fail often in the modern world to articulate what our ancient and medieval ancestors were not afraid to articulate – our lives are a living polemic to our destiny as a “holy nation” and God’s treasured people.
No – we are not like everyone else.
There are times when we want to escape the arsons of our history and the burden of being chosen. But those moments are brief, yet very human.
Noah was a courageous man in any generation, and we are his offspring.
We build our arks, we witness cataclysm, we drink from the vineyard – but we will never deny who we are.
I thank Professor Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg for inspiring this essay and for making me think about issues and problems that are often difficult, as a Jew and human being, to confront.The author is rabbi of Beth Ami Congregation in Boca Raton, Florida.