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Noach's Downfall

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Student Summaries of Sichot of the Roshei Yeshiva
Yeshivat Har Etzion

 Parashat NOACH


Mazal tov to Rav Yair and Hadassa Kahn and to the entire Privas-Kahn family,
upon the bar mitzva of their son Yeshaya Simcha.

 Noach's Downfall

Adapted by Matan Glidai

Translated by Kaeren Fish


A plain reading of the biblical text conveys a very positive impression of Noach: "Noach found favor in God's eyes" (6:8); "Noach was a righteous man; he was perfect in his generation" (6:9); "For I have seen you to be righteous before Me in this generation" (7:1). Nevertheless, Chazal elaborate at length on his deficiencies. Rashi (6:9) notes that some Sages interpreted the phrase, "he was perfect in his generation," in a negative light:


"In comparison with his generation, he was righteous; were he to have lived in the generation of Avraham, he would not have been regarded as anything special."


The verse describing how Noach entered the ark "because of the waters of the Flood" (7:7) is similarly perceived as a criticism:


"Noach was also one of those with little faith, believing and not believing that the Flood would come. He did not enter the ark until the waters pressed against him." (Rashi, quoting the midrash)


The Gemara (Sanhedrin 108a) further asserts that the Divine decree as to the fate of that generation applied to Noach too; however, since he found favor in God's eyes, he was saved.


Thus, the Sages demonstrate a clear tendency to criticize Noach and to detract from his stature. This seems strange: after all, the Torah testifies explicitly to the man's righteousness; there is no hint in the text at any reproach or disfavor towards him. Why did Chazal see fit to project a different image of him than the one reflected in the verses?


The answer lies, apparently, in Noach's behavior after the Flood. When Noach exits the ark, he acts properly and immediately offers sacrifices to God, in thanksgiving for having been saved. God blesses Noach and his sons and forges a covenant with them, promising that there will never be such a flood again. At this point, Noach's relationship with God reaches its climax. But then the situation suddenly starts deteriorating: Noach plants a vineyard, he drinks its wine, and ends up wallowing, naked and helpless, in his tent.


We may point to two distinct stages in Noach's downfall. The first is, "Noach began (va-yachel) to be a man of the land, and he planted a vineyard" (9:20). Rashi quotes Chazal in the midrash, teaching that this verse conveys criticism: "The word ‘va-yachel' implies that he made himself profane (chullin). He should first have planted some other kind of crop."


Noach left the ark, and was met with a world completely destroyed. Upon his shoulders rested the entire task of rebuilding. One might have expected that he would quickly take care of the most basic necessities that the world needed: that he would plant wheat, bake bread, build homes, etc. But instead of all of this, Noach preferred to invest his time in planting a vineyard and producing wine.


The second stage, of course, was his inebriation. He drank more and more; failed to stop himself in time, and thus degenerated to a complete loss of control. He ended up naked and drunk in his tent, and was demeaned. Afterwards he rebuked his youngest son, rather than admitting his own unworthy behavior.


It was this moral fall that appears to have led Chazal to lower their evaluation of him even before the Flood. They concluded that if he was capable of degenerating to such conduct, he could not have been so exceedingly righteous to start off with; "his end testified to his beginning". The midrash (Bereishit Rabba 36, 4) in fact states that Noach took vines into the ark with him, and it was these that he planted after emerging. Thus, the idea of planting a vineyard had blossomed in his mind even before the Flood.


Let us try to analyze the reasons for Noach's downfall. Prior to the Flood, Noach lived in an evil, corrupt environment. The entire world was immersed in violence and sexual immorality. Despite this, Noach managed to remain righteous; he was unaffected by what went on around him. He held open debates with people of his generation, who did not believe that the Flood would come; he maintained his views throughout. The knowledge that his opinion was unusual and special only amplified his sense of mission and obligation, helping guard him from the pressures of his surroundings and helping him distinguish between good and evil.


After the Flood, the situation was altogether different. Noach was no longer unusual; he was now alone. Before him lay the huge task of rehabilitating the world. There was no choice here between good and evil; rather, he faced a choice between one good and another. What would be the best way to go about resettling the world? Many things required rebuilding. Noach had to organize his priorities: what needed to be done first, and what could be left for later? Here he had to stand up only to himself, and in this he failed. Instead of seeing to the most elementary, essential infrastructure, he planted a vineyard and became drunk.


It is significant that Noach's downfall was connected specifically to wine. Wine has two aspects to it: on the one hand, it "makes man's heart joyful"; it brings upliftment. It is no coincidence that specifically wine is used as the libation offering upon the altar. On the other hand, wine can lead to the loss of control, to foolishness and sin, to the point of losing one's "image of God". It all depends on maintaining the proper proportions. When drinking wine, a person has to set himself limits and to know when to stop. It was precisely in this task that Noach failed.


In popular literature from the Middle Ages, Noach was usually portrayed as a comic figure, but in truth his story is a tragic one: a person who dealt heroically with an entire wicked generation and prevailed over them, yet was not able to prevail in his battle with himself. A man who was victorious over the whole world was beaten by the bottle.


Sometimes we suffer from the same problem: we know how to guard ourselves and deal with outside elements that declare themselves opposed to all that is dear to us, but we are not always successful in grappling with our own nature: in using our time properly, in setting proper priorities and limits. Noach's downfall should teach us to devote careful attention to this battle, too.


(This sicha was delivered on leil Shabbat parashat Noach 5755 [1994].)