Noach: History and Imperfection

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Noach

“And Noach began, a man of the earth, and he planted a vineyard. . . . ” (Bereshit/ Genesis 9:20)

Good afternoon!

We’re reading the Torah portion Noach this week. The basic outline of the story is well known: Noach was chosen to built the ark, to save his family and the animal kingdom, when a great flood came upon the earth to wipe out humankind’s wickedness. After the floodwaters recede, God makes a covenant with Noach and the entire earth;  never again will there be such a catastrophe. Noach leaves the Ark and plants a vineyard- only to immediately get himself in trouble in a drunken episode which splits apart his children and family. (Cf. chapter 9.)

The ancient rabbis pick up on the phrase “a man of the earth”- ish ha’adamah – and relate it back to the first human family; they make the connection between Adam in the Garden of Eden and Noach being a man of the adamah, or earth. However, this is rebuke, not a compliment: they imagine that hint of Adam in adamah as God’s way of telling Noach: didn’t you learn from the first human what trouble a vineyard can be? (E.g., in this telling, the fruit in the Garden was grapes of the vine, but the point is about wine, not grapes.)

Certainly the plain meaning of this midrash is a warning against the poor judgement of drunkenness, which is an ever-present danger in human affairs from the very start. Fair enough, but remember that Noach is the second Adam, as it were; in the mythic telling, all humankind descends from Noach and his sons, making him the symbolic father of humanity as was the first Adam in the Garden.

Seen this way, Noach’s inability to learn from the mistakes of his predecessor is a sign that the rabbis believe this is a chronic imperfection of humankind: we are loath to learn from others, from history, from the disciplines of philosophy and ethics. It’s just too easy to go with what seems right at the moment. Being human is a serious business, requiring thought and reflection, but that’s our challenge, not our destiny.

One must note, however, that despite their impulsiveness, both Adam and Noach were worthy of Divine covenant. We, too, who are understood to be their children, are imperfect, but nevertheless beloved; we will make mistakes, as they did, but are given the opportunity to be builders of the world and partners with its Creator.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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