August 7, 2018

Making the wrong choice (Noach)

Following the flood that destroyed almost human being on earth, we are told that Noach planted a vineyard, drank of the wine, became drunk, and then uncovered himself in his tent (see Bereishit 9:20-21). Yet while our Rabbis seem imply that Noach’s choice to plant a vineyard immediately upon exiting the ark was misguided, they struggle to identify what specifically Noach may have done wrong.

This question is further strengthened by the Midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 31:14) which states that the saplings that Noach planted had been kept in the ark throughout the time of the flood (see Rashi on Bereishit 9:20). According to the Chizkuni (on Bereishit 9:20), the reason for doing so is because vines spoil when immersed in water and consequently Noach’s efforts ensured that grapes could continue to exist in a post-flood era. So when Noach left the ark with his sons, it makes perfect sense that the first thing Noach – himself a skilled farmer (see Rashi on Bereishit 5:29) – does is plant a vineyard and bring some life and positivity to a devastated world. But as I hope to explain, Noach’s error was not due to the fact that he planted the vineyard, or even that he drank the wine. Instead, it was that he did so alone.

Our Rabbis teach us that one of the main functions of wine is to comfort mourners at a time of loss (Eruvin 65a), and as Rabbi Baruch Halevi Epstein points out (Tosefet Bracha on Bereishit 9:21), this is why people drink together so that those partaking in the wine can bless one another and offer words of comfort to one another.

When Noach and his sons were in the ark they heard the cries of the people drowning, and when they left the ark they would have seen destruction. Though happy they were alive, Noach and his sons were also in mourning. So Noach plants a vineyard and it is at this stage that we would expect to read that ‘they drank together’. However, we read that ‘he [Noach] drank’ (Bereishit 19:21) – in the singular.

Let’s put ourselves in Noach’s shoes. Noach was tired and wanted some alone time. He’d spent 120 years building the ark and a full year within the ark with his wife, his sons, their wives, and all the animals. Noach needed a drink, and he wanted some time alone. So after he completes the final part of his mission by planting the vines that he had kept on the ark, Noach drinks alone and then he goes into his tent and uncovers himself – clearly indicating that he doesn’t want to spend any more time with his sons.

But while Noach was starting to feel a sense of relief, his sons were still reeling in shock from what they could see, and while Noach may not have needed to drink with others or hear words of comfort, his sons – especially Ham – desperately needed their father to engage with them and to reassure them that all would be alright.

As we know, in contrast to Shem and Yafet who did not enter Noach’s tent, Ham did enter and in so doing, gazed at the indignity of Noach. However, I believe that a close reading of the sheds light on the psychology of Ham and the reasons for him entering the tent.

We are told that ‘Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father’s nakedness and told his two brothers outside’ (Bereishit 9:22). By repeating the term ‘father’, and including the word ‘brother’, I believe this verse is informing us that Ham was feeling vulnerable and that he desperately needed his father and his brothers to come together and drink together so that they could comfort and support each other. Though Ham is punished for what he saw, it seems clear that had Noach not entered his tent and uncovered himself this would not have happened.

What we learn from this episode is that when a family experiences a trauma, a parent must never ignore the emotional needs of their children even when they need some time alone. Noach wasn’t wrong to plant a vineyard, and he wasn’t wrong to have a drink. But having just left the ark with his sons and seen the devastation together, Noach’s sons needed their father to drink with them, to bless them and to comfort them. Unfortunately, Noach made the wrong choice.

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