This week’s Torah portion contains the familiar story of Noah and the flood. God was angry about humanity’s evil ways and so destroys the world’s inhabitants save Noah and his family and the animals two by two. After Noah emerges from the ark he offers a thanksgiving sacrifice and God promises him that never again will the earth be destroyed. The symbol of this covenant is the rainbow.
The portion begins with the statement: “This is the line of Noah.—Noah was a righteous man; he was blameless in his age; Noah walked with God.—Noah begot three sons: Shem, Ham, and Japheth.” (Genesis 6:9) The story of the flood concludes with a seemingly contradictory verse: “Noah, the tiller of the soil, was the first to plant a vineyard. He drank of the wine and became drunk, and he uncovered himself within his tent. Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father’s nakedness and told his two brothers outside.” (Genesis 9:20-22)
According to many historians viniculture first began near Mount Ararat, located in modern day Turkey. This of course is where the ark came to rest as the flood waters receded. The Bible therefore locates the development of wine making with the earliest generations. More importantly the cultivation of grapes, especially those for wine, takes a great deal of time. This implies that a significant number of years have passed since the flood. Noah and his family have now become tied to the land. In fact Noah now has a grandson, Canaan.
This is exactly why the Jewish tradition prizes wine. It must be cultivated over years. This is part of its great value. It is for this reason that we use wine to welcome Shabbat and mark the holidays. It is for this reason as well that we recite a blessing and shout “L’chaim” when a bride and groom share the wine under the huppah. It is not because of its intoxicating effect. It is instead because it is a demonstration of how we can take God’s creation of grapes and fashion them into something of value and worth. Although water is required for sustenance wine is required to elevate life, to sanctify and transform an ordinary day into Shabbat and an everyday occasion into a simcha. This is what Noah discovered in our portion.
This of course does not mean that we are supposed to get drunk and certainly run around naked like Noah. So the question is why did Noah get drunk? The first answer is that he did not know the potency of what he had created. Like a high school or college student (Hmm, why would that come to mind?) he does not appreciate the power of alcohol. If this were the first cup of wine anyone had ever sipped how would he know its power? (I can tell them over and over again about the dangers of alcohol but they like Noah have to learn for themselves and taste its power on their own.)
Then again I once heard Elie Wiesel suggest that Noah became drunk because he was plagued by survivor’s guilt. He and his family were the only people to survive this great catastrophe. According to the rabbis he took a great deal of time to build the ark in the hope that others would inquire about his mission. The rabbis saw his righteousness and argued that his building project was meant as a sign to others so that they might repent. In the end no one even bothered to ask about his task. No one even bothered to offer help.
He emerged from the ark a scarred man. He emerged seeing himself as a failure. He was tortured by guilt. He could only save his family. No friends, no countrymen could be rescued. (Wiesel could only save himself.) But Noah cared for the entire world. And thus he spent his final years in his tent, plagued by guilt and feelings of failure.
Thus even the righteous sometimes stumble. They set too lofty goals for themselves. Noah’s great tragedy was that he tried to save the entire world. When you try to save everyone you are far more likely to fail. I choose instead to work to save our small corner of the world. Join me in this task.
We are partnering with the American Jewish World Service to mark Global Hunger Shabbat and eighteen days of action leading up to Thanksgiving. For more information visit this organization’s website.
Join me in these efforts to make a difference in our world. We dare not sit in our homes and like Noah in his concluding years look with pity at our own lot. We must instead start somewhere and work to rescue a piece of the world.