Saturday, October 06, 2007

Parshat Noach

“Noach, the man of the earth...” (Genesis 9; 20). Ramban explains that the description “man of ...” denotes a complete dedication to that thing, and a separation from anything else. As soon as he left the Ark Noach immediately set about sowing and planting the desolate world that he found. He devoted himself entirely to the earth. Similarly, Moshe was described as “man of G-d” (Deuteronomy 33; 1), signifying his complete devotion and total dedication to G-d.
In the very beginning of our portion Noach is also described as a man, but a ‘righteous man’ (6; 9). According to the Ramban’s definition this means that he dedicated himself to righteousness, and separated himself from anything else. Noach transforms from the epitome of righteousness, to a farmer, concerned not with righteousness, but with the earth. In the same verse that Noach is described as being a ‘man of the earth’ the Torah also shows us his descent from his level of sanctity. “vayachel Noach”, “Noach debased himself” (9; 20).
One could mistakenly assume that it was Noach’s concern with the earth that caused him to lose his righteousness. We assume that someone designated by G-d as ‘righteous’ must spend their time removed from worldly pursuits, engaging with the spiritual. Yet from his birth Noach had been recognised as someone able to work the earth, and transform it like nobody before him. He had a special relationship with the earth. Since the time of Cain nobody had been able to till the ground, yet during Noach’s lifetime the curse of the ground disappeared. Noach is also credited with the invention of the plough allowing people once again to work the ground (Midrash Tanchuma Bereishis 11). In fact Noach was named for his relationship with the earth, “And he called his name Noach saying, ‘This one will bring us rest from our work and from the toil of our hands, from the ground which G-d has cursed’.” Lamech, Noach’s father, recognised his potential to work and develop the ground, and remove its curse.
His relationship with the ground was actually the source of Noach’s righteousness, and in that merit he was chosen to survive the flood. Rather than being removed from the physical world, Noach dedicated himself to working the soil. However, his sole intention in so doing was to bring himself closer to G-d. Therefore after the flood, Noach simply continued with that work which he knew best, tilling the soil, and sowing and planting. He even found support for his actions in G-d’s commands to him. Since (according to Midrashim) G-d had told Noach to take saplings and seeds with him into the Ark, he concluded that he should plant them when he left the Ark a year later.
Rashi explains that Noach’s sin was not in planting, but in what he chose to plant first. Of all the species which he had with him in the Ark, he began by planting grapevines, with the disastrous results mentioned in the continuation of the story. This shows the importance of beginnings. Noach lost his exalted status only because he made the wrong beginning when he emerged from the Ark. Yet Judaism sees nothing intrinsically wrong with wine and grapes - at every Jewish ceremony we mark the transition from holy to mundane or from mundane to holy, with a blessing over wine. Thus we begin Shabbat with Kiddush on wine, and end it with Havdalah on wine. We use wine at a wedding to signify the higher spiritual level of a couple than two individuals, and we use wine at a circumcision to show the higher sanctity of a child who has entered the covenant with G-d. But before Noach became drunk the Torah already saw that he was no longer ‘a righteous man’, but ‘a man of the earth’.
Noach refused to leave the Ark without a Divine command to do so (8; 15-17). “Every living being that is with you … take them out.” In the Torah the Hebrew word ‘take them out’ (hotzei) is read as ‘order them out’ (ha’ytzei), meaning that if the animals refused to leave the Ark voluntarily, Noach and his family should forcibly remove them. Perhaps this reluctance to leave the Ark was also felt by Noach. Therefore G-d subtly told him that there was not an option to remain in the Ark. Why would Noach not want to leave the Ark? Surely a whole year separated from his beloved earth would have been enough for him?
“G-d said to Noach; ‘The end of all flesh has come before Me … and behold I am about to destroy them with the earth (es ha’aretz)’” (6; 13). Rashi explains that not only the people and animals, but even the upper three tefachim of earth were destroyed during the flood. Three tefachim is the depth of a plough, and we can only surmise that the corruption of humanity had even penetrated the earth as they were working it. When Noach emerged from the Ark he realised that because of his invention of the plough, he had indirectly caused the earth to be even more desolate than it should have been. Had he not invented the plough, people would have been unable to work the ground, and it would have been spared destruction. His beloved earth was now ruined because of him.
Perhaps this is why Noach was reluctant to leave the Ark, and why he began the new world by planting vines and becoming drunk. His greatest achievements, the plough and removing the curse from the ground seemed to him to have caused only destruction. Despite receiving Divine sanction for his invention, in his depression he failed to realise their value. He reasoned that it would be better for the world if he were drunk, and unable to contribute any more destructive inventions to the world. This depression caused him to temporarily lose sight of G-d, and become only ‘a man of the earth’.

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