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"These are the Generations of Noach"

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein

Sicha for Shabbat from the Roshei Yeshiva
Yeshivat Har Etzion








"These are the generations of Noah; Noah was a righteous man, he was perfect in his generation, and Noah walked with God." (6,a)

Noah is one of the few individuals whose righteousness is testified to explicitly in the Torah: "And Noah found favor in Hashem's eyes" (6,8). Despite this fact, we find among the commentaries of the Sages a distinct trend towards besmirching Noah's good name, a challenge to his righteousness and an attempt to minimize it. Rashi quotes the well-known midrash that focuses on the expression "in his generation," explaining that "there are those who interpret this as criticism of him." When Noah enters the ark "because of the waters of the flood" (7,7), they comment that "Noah was of little faith." The Gemara (Sanhedrin 108) even goes so far as to comment that "Rabbi Yishmael taught that the decree (of death) was to apply to Noah as well." This clear prejudice is most surprising in light of the literal text. What lies behind the disgust that Chazal apparently feel towards Noah and his behavior? Why, taking into account the Torah's description of him, do they not see him as a character worthy of our admiration?

During the flood and prior to it we are indeed told that "Noah did all that Hashem had commanded him," and so it appears that the answer to the question must lie in his behavior following the flood. Upon leaving the ark Noah performs two actions; he offers sacrifices of thanks to Hashem (8,20) and also begins to repair the destroyed world by planting; "And Noah began (va-yachel) to work the ground, and he planted a vineyard" (9,20). This act leads on to the description of how "he drank from the wine and was drunk, and he was uncovered within his tent" (9,21).

It is this act that arouses the ire of Chazal, and they criticize him for it on various levels. Rashi comments that he should have busied himself with other crops, such as olives; others criticize the fact that he became inebriated - a righteous person should not be lying uncovered and drunk; others maintain that following this incident he should have admitted his fault rather than accusing his youngest son.

What is Noah's fundamental sin, that causes us to reverse completely our estimation of him?

It seems that Noah failed to understand the lesson that we learn from the Gemara in Sota 2a and in Berakhot 63a: "Why is the parasha of the Nazir juxtaposed to that of the Sota?" asks the Gemara, and goes on to explain: "To teach you that anyone who sees the Sota (a woman accused of adultery) in her disgrace should vow to abstain from wine." Rashi (Bamidbar 6:2) explains the connection: "'Vow to abstain from wine' – for this brings one to adultery." In other words, there is something about alcohol that can lead to forbidden sexual relationships, and a person who sees a sota in her disgrace should be shocked to the point of vowing to abstain from wine in order to distance himself from its possible negative effects.

This addition by Rashi does not appear in the relevant sugyot in Sota or in Berakhot, and therefore we may suggest an alternative explanation. Both the Torah and general literature describe the dual cultural and symbolic nature of wine. On one hand, wine elevates one's spirits, bringing joy and a gathering of one's inner psychological strengths, freeing them for a lofty purpose: "There is no joy without meat and wine," "wine gladdens man's heart." Wine is not essential, like water; it expresses the development of the world of culture, in which sipping wine represents a noble act. On the other hand, wine may also express the opposite - that which is lowly and disgraceful, the path to light-headedness and sin, the empty and frivolous people who drown all their base desires in wine. The same wine that can enhance one's spiritual state can also bring about a blurring of boundaries and destruction of moral frameworks. Crossing this fine line can lead to catastrophic loss of control.

A person who witnesses the shame of a sota sees before him a woman who has engaged in an act which is important and blessed on its own, but she has sinned in performing it out of an obsessive impulse and a momentary inclination that came over her. The act was devoid of discipline and boundaries; it was without control or constraint. It is specifically in this act that the possibly catastrophic danger of crossing the fine line and losing one's inner discipline finds expression. And so this witness must take extra care when it comes to alcohol; he must swear to distance himself from it. The Nazirite status expresses distance from wine, which symbolizes by its dual and capricious nature the danger involved.

The world which Noah had seen – a world that had become utterly corrupt, a world in which all boundaries had been erased and all frameworks discarded, a world of bestial desire, whose verdict was sealed because of its robbery more than any other sin – was an eloquent illustration of the loss of discipline and the uncontrollable desire to conquer others and to take from them. But Noah, who saw the entire world erased and destroyed before his eyes, failed to learn the lesson. "And Noah began (va-yachel) - he made himself profane (hulin)." What an unfortunate creature is this Noah, lying naked and drunk in his tent, without consciousness and without self-control. He had not learned the lesson.

Twice Hashem blesses man with the words, "be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth." The first time He is speaking to Adam (1,28); the second time - to Noah (9,1). But there is one clear difference between the two blessings - only the first time does Hashem say, "and conquer it (the world)." Conquest is a characteristic with a dual nature. It may be used to achieve good, but also for terrible destruction. Hashem blesses Adam with the hope that he will know how to make use of this characteristic. Following the flood – after the experience of a generation that had lost all sense of proportion in the use of this characteristic – there was no longer any possibility of including this in the blessing to "be fruitful and multiply."

Noah, who wished to establish a world based on joy and elevated spirits together with natural corporeality, planted a vineyard. His mistake lay in failing to understand that there was no room for this planting following the complete destruction of the corrupt, defiled world that had lost its level-headedness. A world cannot be built on a foundation of wine without the necessary preparation, without the establishment of boundaries – discipline and morality.

"And he drank of the wine and was drunk, and he was uncovered within his tent" – the image of this elderly and unfortunate Noah, naked and helpless, outstretched, unwell and needy, should serve as a warning to us concerning a world in which, with the loss of discipline and a blurring of boundaries, even the best, most blessed and most worthy things may turn into the greatest sins.




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