The first time we are introduced to Noach, there is a great deal of optimism and hope invested in him.
At the end of last week’s parsha, we are told Chanoch walked with God, VaYithalaich Chanoch et haElokim. He bore Metushelach and Metushelach bore Lamech. These three generations worked the soil but had a sense of the work being necessary for the ultimate good on the earth. Then Noach was born. The reason for his name, the Torah tells us, was “zeh y’nachaminu.” In fact, the double trope –the t’lisha gedolah and the gairshaiim, over the word Zeh in Zeh y’nachamainu, cause us to pause and recognize that this individual has potential. The name Noach was given, because this one, Noach, will bring us comfort. Rashi understands that the root of Noach is Nuach, rest…He will bring us rest, in the sense of relief from the toil of our hands. Rashi brings down the midrash which expresses that this is referring to the invention of farming tools which was attributed to Noach. According to Pirkai d’Rabbi Eliezer, the punishment of Adam that he would work with great difficulty would only be during Adam’s life time. However, according to Pirkai d’Rabbi Eliezer, this stopped when Noach was born, since Noach was the first born after Adam died.
Rashi disagrees with others who understand that the name Noach comes from Nachaim. However, within the description of Noach’s name, it is understood that Noach brought comfort to his father and those before him. In the Torah itself, the explanation of Noach’s name is zeh y’nachamainu. There is a connection between n’chama and Noach.
When we begin this week’s parsha: The Torah describes Noach as “Ish Tzaddik - a righteous man. Later, he is described as a “man of the field” –in 9:20 – Ish Adamah”
An interesting passage in Midrash Rabbah draws a contrast between Noach and Moshe:
"Rav Berekhya said: Moshe is more beloved than Noach. Noach, after having been called 'a righteous man' is called 'a man of the ground.' But Moshe Rabbenu, after having been called 'an Egyptian man' is called 'a man of God.'"
What does this mean? How do the different descriptions of these two men reflect who is "more beloved"?
Clearly, the significant point here relates to sequence. Moshe is considered more beloved because he emerged as a spiritual giant from humble beginnings, having been raised as an Egyptian. Noach, by contrast, underwent the reverse process. He began as a righteous man, but then became a drunkard.
Yet, this passage still troubling. Is this the only basis for Moshe's superiority over Noach? Didn't we only recently - on Simchat Torah - read the concluding verses of the Torah which speak of Moshe's prophetic stature that exceeded that of any other prophet? Wasn't Moshe allowed the closest glimpse of the divine essence available to a human being? If he had not begun as an Egyptian, he would not be considered greater than Noach?!
Perhaps the clue lies is the Midrash's usage of the word, "chaviv" - beloved. Certainly, Moshe attained a greater level of wisdom and piety than Noach. However, whether one is "beloved" in the eyes of the Almighty depends not on his objectively defined level, but rather on his direction. When it comes to avodat Hashem, where one is headed is far more critical than where he is. Many qualities and characteristic rendered Moshe "great." But he became "beloved" specifically through his commitment to ongoing spiritual growth. Noach, by contrast, went through a process of regression, from a "righteous man" to a "man of the land."
The Midrash expresses an important concept. God does not expect us to become infallible tzadikim overnight. Hashem demands however, that we constantly seek to improve. This is how we become beloved in God’s eyes.
To better understand Noach’s decline and how he becomes an Ish Adamah, we should examine his actions when he exits the Taiva, the ark.
Immediately, after he exits the taiva, Noach offers a korban, a sacrifice to God. – Vayeeven Noach Mizbach laHashem (8:20).
God makes a brit, a promise to Noach, that God will no longer cause the devastation that he experienced again upon the earth.
Then, he plants a vineyard:
כ וַיָּחֶל נֹחַ, אִישׁ הָאֲדָמָה; וַיִּטַּע, כָּרֶם.
כא וַיֵּשְׁתְּ מִן-הַיַּיִן, וַיִּשְׁכָּר; וַיִּתְגַּל, בְּתוֹךְ אָהֳלֹה.
20 And Noah the man of the earth, planted a vineyard.
21 And he drank of the wine, and became drunk and uncovered himself within his tent.
This was Noach’s attempt to erase or undo the past. On a basic level he tried to forget all the destruction which he had experienced. The Torah emphasizes Vayichal, - Noach began. Planting the vineyard and getting drunk was Noach’s first activity after thanking God. Of all the things he could have done to rebuild the world, he tried to erase the past. Although Noach had a future filled with potential, he could not accept his past. In fact, one could say he had no future because he tried to obliterate his past. The Torah’s account of Noach ends with this episode even though he continued to live many years.
On a deeper level Noach wanted to go back even further. As an Ish Adama, Noach tried to recreate Adam HaRishon’s experience in Gan Eden. He saw himself as a new Adam, a lone person in the world.
Chazal understood this in the way he even built the altar to God after he emerged from the ark: As it says in Chapter 8, verse 20:
'ויבן נח מזבח לה' ' (בראשית ח', כ)... ר' אליעזר בן יעקב אומר: על מזבח הגדול שבירושלים, ששם הקריב אדם הראשון (בראשית רבה לד ט).
Rabi Eliezer ben Yaakov says: On this large mizbaiach that was in Yerushalyim, - that there was where Adam haRishon offered sacrifice. (Braishit Rabbah 34:9).
Getting drunk was a way to undo the consequences of eating from the Eitz da’at tov v’ra – where there was a punishment of toiling the land…there was work to be done. He wanted to revert back to when Adam haRishon was first placed in Gan Eden. He uncovered himself to mimic the experience of Gan Eden.
When Hashem first places Adam, in Gan Eden, the pasuk tells us in 2:15:
וַיִּקַּח יְקוָק אֱלֹקים, אֶת-הָאָדָם; וַיַּנִּחֵהוּ בְגַן-עֵדֶן, לְעָבְדָהּ וּלְשָׁמְרָהּ.
And God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to work it and to keep it.
Va Yanichaihu – and God placed Adam. Perhaps Noach understood his name as a connection to Adam and Gan Eden. Noach wanted to undo all of Human history up until that point and start again.
But we know this is not possible. As Thomas Wolfe told us, “You Can’t Go Home Again.” We can never return to a past situation or experience. Something is always different – usually and most importantly we have changed. We can’t recover the past.
A tzaddik, what Noach was before the flood, can see possibilities and be oriented toward the future. Instead of understanding that his name is a Bracha for future comfort and contribution to society, Noach sees this opportunity for himself to get back to Gan Eden.
In the end, Noach’s legacy focuses on his own status and survival. Contrast this with the end of this week’s parsha with Avraham Avinu: Avraham has a future oriented message while Noach keeps to his own needs and purpose. In the Torah it is written “elah toledot Noach, Noach…, for Noach’s ultimate future will be lost in himself. Avraham, by contrast, had an active role in shaping the values and destiny of his progeny –“eleh toldot Yitzhak ben Avraham, Avraham holeed et Yitzhak.”
Instead of erasing his past, Noach could have tried to engage the present to make it better than it was. Instead, he idealized the past. Rather than recreate the past, Noach should have tried to incorporate the things he idealized about past experiences into action for a more productive future.
Noach is truly a crisis manger and a survivor. But this survivor was entrusted with the critical role of ensuring continuity. The way Noach responds to “kaitz kol basar l’fanai” that Hashem will put an end to all flesh – is by becoming more introverted, insulating himself in the teivah and riding out the storm instead of going out and finding active ways to avoid destruction.
This aspect of Noach’s personality is enhanced after the flood when it is not only that he is unable to engage people but the present as well. We can only assume that he thought what people were doing around him was wrong, but he did not actively engage them in order to change their direction. He returns to his own singularity, even ignoring his family.
This does not mean that one should forget their past and not draw from the past, but, we utilize what we find compelling and channel it forward.
Noach’s limited spiritual ambition and more circumscribed role is reflected by his conduct in the aftermath of the crisis when he was faced with the opportunity to initiate and shape the new world. In many respects, he is unable to transcend the limitations of his environment and his past. Instead of seizing a single opportunity to symbolically and substantively inaugurate a new order, he proceeds, after bringing a sacrifice of thanksgiving to plant a vineyard and succumb to its effects with disastrous consequences.
While no one can deny that Noach’s role in his preparation before the flood enabled the bridging of two worlds and was indispensable - we appreciate the fact that “et haElokim hithalaich Noach” that despite what was around him, Noach walked with God. However, the spiritual initiative and the sense of potential for the growth of what was to be, was greatly lacking.
For ourselves, we need to draw on the positive values and experiences of our past and realize that we cannot create those same experiences and circumstances. But - we can certainly carry those values forward. As a community we need to recognize the potential that is at hand and figure out the ways that we can implement that which we admire and aspire to into our present reality and going forward.