Who Was Noah?
The Trauma of the Flood & its Impact on Noah
We all know the story of Noah, with the animals living together harmoniously in the ark, the dove, the rainbow sign. But this is only half of the story. Underneath this fairytale version of the Noah story lies a dark, more disturbing wrinkle that finds its crescendo in Noah’s vineyard. And this part of the story is more relevant than anything else we might think about Noah and the flood.
Ami: Hi, everyone. I'm Ami Silver, one of the scholars at Aleph Beta. What you're about to hear is a live class I gave on a topic that has nudged me for a long time. It's an exploration of the story and character of Noah, in a way that I think we're not used to thinking about. I don't want to give too much away, but I'll share that this recording is based on material that I spent a lot of time researching, learning, and thinking about. It's a topic that's close to my heart, and it was a pleasure to share it with this class, and now with you. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
On the one hand, Noah strikes me as probably one of the stories in the Torah that we are the most familiar with, a story that's etched in our minds from very early on. There's Noah and the flood, and Noah is the righteous individual among all of the humans in his time, who God says, you're the one who's going to carry on life. And the flood and the animals, and then obviously, at some point, Noah and the animals are ready to come out, and the rainbow.
It's a very beautiful story, and we kind of relate to it almost as, like, a fairy tale, because on some level it's so mythic and almost primordial that it just kind of exists there in our mind as this story that the Torah tells about this man and his animals. He's almost like this Doctor Dolittle of the universe, that he takes care of the animals. God says, you're a great guy, let's start the world over together.
There's something about the story of Noah that I think, specifically because it's so deeply etched in our consciousness in these ways, that there are elements of this story that I think we tend to pay less attention to and that are not so easy to understand. They don't so easily fit into the picture of Noah on the Ark with the rainbow in the background and the giraffes and the elephants and the bunnies and the flamingos all living together in harmony.
One element in that story that doesn't quite fit that narrative is actually what happens right after Noah emerges from the Ark and the rainbow covenant, and when everything returns "to normal." I'm talking about the end of Noah's story. At the end of Noah's story, he plants a vineyard. He plants a vineyard, he gets drunk. He gets so drunk that he undresses himself and seems to pass out in his tent. Something happens, it's not so clear exactly what. His son Ham sees him, the Torah tells us, but something about that was so egregious that when Noah wakes up from his stupor, he curses his own progeny, the children of Ham, and blesses his other children.
That's basically the end of Noah's story, and it's very odd. We have this whole narrative of the righteous man who's chosen to carry on life in the world, who goes through the flood, who comes out on the other side. There's the rainbow covenant, the sacrifices, everything is kind of back to normal. The world is ready to begin again, and then right away, the very next story is this kind of dark and disturbing episode with the vineyard and his children. It doesn't quite seem to fit, and it's a bit of a puzzle. What is that story? How do we understand it? How does Noah end up here?
Part of what draws me to this story in particular is, you know, I said that Noah kind of has this mythic status in our mind because it's something that's so hard to relate to, a whole world kind of submerged in flood and begun again with the Ark and the animals. But this part of the story, it's pretty human. It's ugly and it's messy for sure, but it's actually speaking about Noah in terms that are maybe a little more familiar to us in terms of things that we, perhaps, encounter, even in our world today, of drunkenness, of people getting carried away, of damaging things happening within a family. There's something in this story where Noah ends up in a place that's very different from where he was before, but also somehow there's something about that that, hey, it's actually not some mythic tale from long ago, but actually perhaps something that is a little more relatable and relevant to the world that we all know today, as much as it's also disturbing and difficult.
So part of what I'd like to do with you is to really look into Noah's story, to try to make sense of what might be going on there in the vineyard. Was it really out of nowhere? How do we make sense of it in the grand scheme of Noah's story? And perhaps, does it hold something that actually relates to us in our worlds today as well?
So as an introduction, I want us to look a little bit into the beginning of Noah's story and the end of Noah's story, because I think that we'll see it's not just us who might be kind of confused by the seeming contrast in what happens over the course of Noah's life, but I believe that a close read of the text, the Torah itself is actually showing us that there is a deep contrast or even transformation that happens here.
So let's start. We're in Chapter 6 in Genesis, Verse 9, the beginning of Parshat Noach. This is where we're kind of introduced to his story. "Eileh toldot Noach," these are the generations of Noah. "Noach ish tzaddik," Noah was a righteous man, "tamim hayah b'dorotav," he was whole or innocent in his generation. "Et ha'Elokim hit'haleich Noach," Noah walked with God.
I just want to pause here for a moment, because the Torah describes us here a few key characteristics. Noah is an ish tzaddik, he's called a righteous man. By the way, this is no small deal. Noah is actually the only character in all of the Chumash (Five Books of Moses) who is referred to as a tzaddik, who is identified as a righteous person, an individual called tzaddik. We know we have like Yosef Hatzaddik (Joseph the Righteous), that only comes later in Rabbinic literature. Moses is not called a tzaddik, Abraham is not called a tzaddik. Noah is the only person named as a tzaddik.
But if we look at the story here, it's not so clear what it means that he was a tzaddik. We don't see Noah going around and, let's say, doing acts of charity and kindness to people. We don't see Noah baking pies for his neighbors or checking up on people to see how they're doing. We don't even see him going around teaching Torah. It's not clear what makes him a tzaddik. We do see certain behaviors in Noah. Because the Torah doesn't just say he was a tzaddik, it says a few more things. It says he walked with God. Now, it still doesn't tell us what that means, but I think if we read on, we might get a clue as to what that means.
Then God, in these next verses, starts to give Noah instructions. I want you to build an Ark, out of this kind of wood, I want you to cover it with this material. I want you to build it to these dimensions, I want you to put a window up on top of it, and a door on the side. Then I'm going to bring a flood, et cetera. God is basically giving Noah all the basic instructions. I'm just scrolling through, a lot of verses there. Come to Verse 22, "Vaya'as Noach k'chol asher tzivah oto Elokim kein asah," Noah did, he performed everything that God commanded him to do, "kein asah," thus he did.
So far, God gives Noah a whole lot of instructions, and all we really see from Noah, okay, he does everything God tells him to do. Keep reading into Chapter 7. God says to Noah, okay, now it's time. I want you to come into the Ark. I want you to bring all of these kind of animals, seven of these, seven of these, a pair of these, a pair of these. God continues to give Noah more practical instructions of what's going to happen with the flood.
Here we get into Verse 5, "Vaya'as Noach k'chol asher tzivahu Hashem," Noah does everything God commands him. So if you were to ask me, what is it about Noah that makes him a righteous person who walks with God? It seems like we might have our answer here in these next verses. God tells Noah to do things. Noah follows God's command to a T. In the Torah, it's almost like a refrain here, "vaya'as Noach k'chol asher tzivahu Hashem." It's almost over-emphasized the first time. Noah does everything God tells him to do. "Kein asah," thus he does. Then once again, "Vaya'as Noach k'chol asher tzivahu Hashem," it seems to be that this is what it looks like for Noah to be a righteous person who walks with God. He walks with God, he does what he's told. He is God's obedient servant.
You see in the next verses, the flood starts to come. Noah and his whole family, they all get into the Ark. All of the animals get into the Ark. I want to just bring us to this verse right over here, Verse 16. Male and female of every living flesh, all creatures, they come "ka'asher tzivah oto Elokim," just as God had commanded him. "Vayisgor Hashem ba'ado," and God closes the door for Noah. In some sense, Noah does everything God tells him to, and God takes care of him. Get in, I'll close the door. I'll seal it up for you. Water's coming. The flood's begun. You're safe, you're protected.
If I were to break up Noah's story into different acts, this is basically Act I of Noah's story. Act I, Noah the righteous man who walks with God, Noah who follows all of God's commands and instructions. It ends right here, where God shuts the door and Noah is safe and sound in the Ark.
I want to just hold that narrative in our minds for a moment, and I'm going to jump down now to the text where we get into the vineyard story. This is in Genesis Chapter 9. We're fast-forwarding -- and don't worry, we'll get more into the meat of things, but we're fast-forwarding. The flood has ended. The rainbow covenant, Noah and all the animals and all the humans are ready to emerge and continue to create new life and populate the earth.
We're here in Chapter 9, Verse 20. "Vayachel Noach ish ha'adamah vayita karem," and Noah, the man of the earth, vayachel. This is the action that we're told Noah is doing. Vayachel comes from the word meaning to begin. We'd say in modern Hebrew hit'chil, to start something. "Vayachel Noach ish ha'adamah," Noah the man of the earth, he takes initiative, "vayita karem," he plants a vineyard. "Vayeisht min hayayin vayishkar," he drinks from the wine, he gets drunk. "Vayitgal b'toch oholoh," and he exposes himself inside of his tent.
There are just a few things here that I want us to take note of. First of all, look at what Noah is doing. He's initiating something. Did anybody tell Noah to plant a vineyard? Did anybody instruct Noah to start getting into the agriculture business, to start a winery? This story is very specific, he's starting this process on his own initiative. That already is showing us a very stark contrast with what we saw earlier. In the beginning of Noah's story, in Act I, he is the person who responds to God's command and does exactly what God tells him to. Right here, the first thing he does after the whole flood story is over and done, vayachel Noach, he's starting on his own now. He's doing this on his own initiative.
It seems that the contrast here is maybe even sharper when we just look at this description. "Vayachel," he begins. Who begins? "Noach ish ha'adamah," Noah, the man of the earth. Remember how Noah was introduced to us up above? "Eileh toldot Noach, Noach ish tzaddik," Noah, the man who was righteous, the man who walked with God. Without even giving any particular interpretation or value to what it means to be a man of the earth, that phrase, that in a sense -- the way the Torah is qualifying and describing Noah here as "Noach ish ha'adamah" is a kind of mirroring of how he was described earlier, "Noach ish tzaddik." It's almost the same words, but the description is different. In one case, he's the righteous one. In this case, he's the man of the earth.
Without trying to make sense of what that might even mean to be a man of the earth, it seems that the Torah is indicating that something here has changed, that something here is different. That becomes even stronger when we add what Noah's behavior is. Here he's vayachel, here he's a self-starter. Over there, he walks with God. Noah doesn't build an Ark because he has some grand idea, and he doesn't pull out the blueprints. He sits there and waits for God's commands, and only then does he act. That seemed to be transformed here. A self-starter and called by a different title.
The Torah itself seems to be pointing to this transformation. Noah has a different name, a different status, and apparently, a different set of behaviors. I want to try to understand what changed for Noah. How do we make sense of this somewhat shocking transformation? For that, I want us to look into Genesis Chapter 8, because again, if we think of Noah's story in acts, and Act I is the beginning of the story until he gets in the Ark, and then the flood takes hold. The last act, the final act is the vineyard story. Right before the vineyard story, we have the rainbow covenant and we have Noah emerging from the Ark. There's actually another story that takes place there in the middle, in the midst of the flood, that I think may help clue us in to what may have been responsible for some of the change in Noah, and maybe even where that change may have begun. That's what I want us to look at together.
To just bring us into the text and give us some context what's happening here, Noah has gotten into the Ark and the flood is raging. All living creatures are dying and being wiped off the face of the earth. For 150 days the water is just overwhelming the entire earth. Come read Chapter 8.
"Vayizkor Elokim et Noach," God remembers Noah and all of the animals and all of the beasts with him in the Ark. And God causes this wind to start to blow upon the earth. Then God seals up the sources of water. The water starts flowing back and forth, slowly beginning to drain from the earth. "Vatanach hateivah bachodesh hashevi'i b'shiv'ah asar yom lachodesh al harei Ararat," in the seventh month, the 17th day of that month, the Ark finally comes to rest on the mountains of Ararat. This, by the way, we're 150 days exactly from the beginning of the flood, so now five months have passed. The water stops, and the Ark comes to rest, in a sense parks itself in this mountain range.
But it doesn't end there. The water continues to slowly drain, "ad hachodesh ha'asiri," until the tenth month. We're talking another two-and-a-half months after the Ark has come to stop, another two-and-a-half months, "nir'u roshei heharim," the mountain peaks become visible. This is where I'd say Noah Act II begins, because Noah comes back onto the scene here.
"Vayehi mikeitz arba'im yom vayiftach Noach et chalon hateivah asher asah," at the end of 40 days, Noah opened up the window to the Ark that he had made. Now, what's Noah doing? Why is Noah opening a window? This is the very first thing Noah does in the entire story that he's not commanded to do. To make the point here even sharper, let's go back to the very last time we saw Noah. The very last time we saw Noah, he climbed into the Ark with all of the animals, "Vayisgor Hashem ba'ado." The last thing that happened, God is closing the Ark for Noah. The next time Noah shows up, Noah is opening up the window of the Ark. So he's not only doing something that God didn't command him to do, he's actually, in a sense, doing the opposite of the last thing God had done. For some inexplicable reason, Noah is opening up the window.
Let's just follow, for a moment, the next actions that Noah takes. He opens the window and he sends out a raven. Then he sends out a dove. He sends out the dove because the Torah is telling us now what Noah is up to. "Lir'ot hakalu hamayim mei'al pnei ha'adamah," Noah wants to see, has the water let up from the earth? The dove comes back. Noah brings it back into the Ark. Now, come here to Verse 10. "Vayachel od shiv'at yamim acheirim vayosef shalach et hayonah min hateivah." I'm hesitant to translate here, but look at that first word, "vayachel od shiv'at yamim acheirim."
We saw that word, vayachel, before. It's the very same word that we see later in the vineyard. He's beginning. He's doing something on his own. He's initiating a new seven-day process. I didn't get what I wanted the first time around. Counting from today, I'm going to let seven days pass, and then once again he send the dove out from the Ark. This time, the dove comes back with an olive branch in its mouth, and Noah knows okay, the water's let up a little bit. But he doesn't stop there. "Vayiyachel od shiv'at yamim acheirim," once again, he's beginning again. Another seven days have to pass now. Noah says, okay, let's start another seven-day process here.
He sends out the dove once more. This last time, the dove doesn't come back. Soon after, Noah uncovers the cover and he waits until the earth dries. This episode is actually where Noah begins to shift character. The obvious question is, why is Noah acting this way? Why is Noah doing all these things? The Noah we know is told what to do. Why isn't Noah just sitting around waiting for the next instructions? Why can't he just wait until God says, hey Noah, the flood's over, time to come out?
So to begin to explore that question, I want to just come back to the context of what's happening when Noah opens the window. We're reading this story of God bringing the flood to an end, remembering Noah, bringing the wind, draining the earth. You and I, the readers, we know this is happening. What does Noah know? Noah knows very little.
Now, the Torah tells us the mountaintops are visible, and you and I know that. But Noah does not know that. The reason I know that Noah doesn't know that is because he sends out a dove to see outside of the Ark. Noah can't see what's happening outside the Ark. Well, you might say, what do you mean? He has a window. He does have a window, but if we go back to when God explicitly commands Noah to make a window, God says, "Tzohar ta'aseh lateivah," make a skylight in the Ark. "V'el amah techalenah milema'alah," let it be an arm's length from the roof. Noah put a window in the Ark at God's command, but it's all the way up on the roof.
So the Torah has this whole narrative of the earth, in a sense, coming back to normalcy, slowly and gradually, but all Noah knows is that at some point, after many months in the Ark, the water is maybe a little quieter. The pitter-patter of the rain has stopped. There's some kind of bump and the Ark isn't moving anymore, and then he's just sitting there waiting and waiting and waiting. Noah is actually just sitting there in a dark Ark, not knowing what's going on out there, and not getting any communication from God about what's happening. Months and months that are going by where the Ark's just motionless, and nobody's talking to him. It's complete radio silence there.
So it seems that what drives Noah to start acting on his own, to start taking initiative here, opening up the window, let me send out a bird to see what in the world is going on there. I think if we read, in a sense, the purpose of Noah sending out the dove time and time again, the Torah tells us very specific things. Number one, "Vayeshalach et hayonah mei'ito lir'ot hakalu hamayim mei'al pnei ha'adamah." Noah needs the dove because he needs to be able to see outside of the Ark. The dove is Noah's eyes out there on the earth. Noah can't see outside the Ark, so he needs the dove to fulfill that mission for him, be his eyes out there, what's happening.
"V'lo matz'ah hayonah mano'ach l'chaf raglah," and the dove doesn't find a resting place for its foot. There are two things that Noah's missing here that he wants the dove to fulfill for him. Number one, he can't see, so he needs the dove to go see what's happening outside. Number two, which might be a related and maybe even deeper of what Noah's truly missing in this moment, "lo matz'ah…mano'ach l'chaf raglah." Look at that word, mano'ach. What does it sound like, mano'ach? It's Noah's name. It's Noah's own name. The dove is going out there and doesn't find any mano'ach.
Noah is literally suspended in kind of nowhere land. He's in this dark Ark, he doesn't know where on earth he is. He doesn't even know, is there an earth out there. He's literally missing the ground beneath his feet, and he's also figuratively missing the ground beneath his feet. Until this point, God's been right there with him. Do this, Noah, okay. Do this, Noah, okay. I'll take care of you, Noah, okay. Time has passed. Months have gone by, and there's zero communication.
"Lo matz'ah…mano'ach l'chaf raglah," in some sense, it's as if Noah is saying, I want to know, is there any stable ground for me to stand on anymore? Because right now, he's lost it. What Noah is experiencing here is not just impatience. He is truly acting like God isn't with him anymore. He's doing the things that God did not command him to do, and he's doing these vayachel-vayiyachel actions. I need to act on my own. I'm starting this all by myself. It's as if Noah, in these moments, is fighting for his life, and he's doing it all by himself.
I kind of opened by talking about how we have a very fairytale image of the Noah story in our minds, this great guy, took care of the animals, came out on the other side and got the rainbow and started the world again. There's actually a very dark side to this story which is, what's happening this whole time? What's happening right now is that every other living creature is being killed by the flood. There's a global devastation that Noah is living through these last months. It's one thing if you're living through that devastation and you know that God is right with you every step of the way, that God is the one who's commanding you to build the Ark, is commanding you to bring in the animals, and closing the Ark for you. I'm here with you, Noah, you're my guy. We're in this together.
But all of that seems to have just entered into this very strange standstill where nothing's happening anymore, as far as Noah knows. His one source of ongoing stability and comfort and protection, which is God, is absent. God is not in communication with him anymore. So where does that leave him? We see in Noah's behavior, it leaves him fighting for his survival. He's trying to do everything he can to figure out, how am I going to survive this?
I'll share something kind of disturbing with you also, which is that if we look back at God's instructions to Noah about the flood that was going to come, God tells Noah, I'm going to make a flood and everyone is going to die except for you and the animals in the Ark. You know what God doesn't say to Noah? God never says to Noah, you're going to leave the Ark at the end of it. Here Noah is. Nothing's changing. Nothing's moving. No one's talking to him. Maybe this is it. Maybe this is it.
When we get inside the mind of Noah and we come and look at what he wants these birds to accomplish for him, I need to see what's happening out there, and I need to know, is there anywhere to put my foot down on this earth? Is there any ground to stand on anymore? Is there going to be another world for me, or does it just kind of end here? Whatever it is, he's not willing and not able to just stay in this kind of suspended animation where he has nothing to stand on.
Here's where Noah truly begins to act, vayachel, to act like he's by himself and to take his own steps toward finding his way. How am I going to get through this? He's not given tools, so he's trying different things. Even with the dove, he tries time and time and time again. There's a persistence and a desperation to Noah's activities here. He sends a dove, okay. Let's try once again. I get it, the first time the dove just went out and came right back. So Noah says, let's wait seven days, I'm going to try it once again.
The second time, the dove comes back with an olive branch. But Noah, he wants to be more secure than that, so he's going to wait again. The last time, the dove doesn't come back, "Vayeida Noach ki kalu hamayim mei'al ha'aretz," now Noah figures it out. Okay, there must be dry land out there. He waits again, and then the dove never comes back.
So I want to ask you something. We are noticing that Noah maybe went through a bit of a crisis there in the Ark. Okay, he had a few months. It was intense. He didn't know what was happening with him. But God came back into the picture, right? So on one level, okay. Noah, you had a freak-out there, but you just didn't understand what was happening. The moment the earth was ready, God was right back talking to you. God didn't leave you. This whole time, God remembered you and was taking care of the earth, was actually preparing it just for you.
It's this beautiful image here, too. He comes out and gives God sacrifices, and there's a rainbow. God says, I'm never going to destroy the earth again. God blesses Noah and his children. Go, populate the earth. It's really a new beginning. All of that fear, all of that anxiety, it's behind him.
This is where things get very strange, because the very next story after this whole hugs, kisses, rainbows, and revival of the earth, and the promise to protect and sustain life, the very next thing Noah does is "Vayachel Noach ish ha'adamah," Noah is vayachel once again. Noah is acting on his own once again, doing without being commanded. Being a self-starter, acting without God's commands or consent. He's called Noach ish ha'adamah now. He's not called or described the same way he was before.
It seems like he should be walking with God again, right? He should be doing what God commands him to do once again. But strangely, he's still acting similarly to how he was back in the Ark when he felt that God had abandoned him and left the scene.
The question that I have is, why? Why didn't Noah get the message and go back to being the ish tzaddik who walks with God, who does what God tells him? Why is Noah, after all that he's been through, still, once again, acting in this way of vayachel, acting like he's all alone? Doesn't he know that he's back with God? Beyond that, why does he do the next things that he does? Why does he plant the vineyard, get drunk, end up in this messy scene with his family? Like, what happens here?
I understand if he had an unravelling when he was back in the Ark, but that's over. He's been reassured. The earth is back to normal. He has God's protection and promise. Why is he acting this way at this point? We're going to go deeper into the text of that story to try to uncover some of the things that are happening there, that maybe we don't notice when we just read it kind of in a vacuum.
Now that we've uncovered more about Noah's experience in the Ark, I think we'll see that the vineyard story might take on a whole new meaning. So we'll start off by just looking at these texts side by side. We've already noticed the links between the word vayachel with the birds and vayachel Noach here in the vineyard. I want to just look through this story with you together and see if we notice any other echoes between these two episodes.
So let's take a look here back in the Ark. "Vayachel," Noah is acting alone. He's initiating this process, this action of sending out the birds. So when Noah is vayachel back in the Ark, what does he do? It's very simple. He sends a dove, right? "Vayachel…vayosef shalach et hayonah." Noah's starting, his project that he's beginning, has to do with the dove, with the yonah.
Interestingly, and somewhat strangely, if we look at Chapter 9 in these two verses where Noah is starting something again, is there anything here, any word here that reminds you of a yonah, when Noah is vayachel in the vineyard? There are no birds here, but there is yayin. What is yayin? Yayin is wine. Now, we don't usually think of these terms together, yonah, yayin, a dove and wine. But it's somewhat curious that in both stories Noah is vayachel, he's starting something, and then he, in a sense, has some kind of agent that he uses in his vayacheling, in his initiative here, and those two agents sound strangely similar to one another. In one case, he's vayachel and sends a yonah, in one case he's vayachel and he drinks yayin, wine.
Now, I don't expect you to believe me that that means a whole lot, because those words, okay, they have some shared letters. But think about this. Why is Noah sending a yonah back in the Ark there? He's sending the yonah because he wants to see something, "lir'ot hakalu hamayim al pnei ha'adamah." He sends it out to, in a sense, give him vision. After he sends the dove time and time and time again, he's finally able to uncover the Ark and vayar. When the dove mission succeeds, Noah himself gets to see, "hinei charvu pnei ha'adamah," the earth has been dried up.
So the yonah in the Ark leads to seeing something. Strangely enough, in the vineyard, the yayin also leads to something being seen. Because Noah drinks the wine, he gets drunk, he gets undressed in his tent, and then, in Verse 22, "Vayar Cham avi Chena'an et ervat aviv," Noah's son Ham sees his father's nudity. Now, granted, the seeing is very different. It's different people who are seeing, and it's different things that are being seen. But both vayachels within that agent of yonah and yayin lead to something being seen. I would say, even more so, something that previously was not able to be seen is now being seen.
How is it that these things become seen in both stories? In the Ark, Noah sees the land because he removes the cover of the Ark. In Verse 13, "Vayasar Noach et michsei hateivah," Noah removes the michseh, the cover of the Ark. Over in the vineyard, how is it that Noah's naked body is seen? Noah also uncovers something for it to be seen. Noah removes his clothing. "Vayitgal b'toch oholoh," he exposes himself inside of his tent. But more than that, the clothing that Noah removes are later called, in this story, a covering.
This happens after he's seen by Ham, his other two sons, they realize what's going on and they take the clothing that Noah had removed, "Vayechasu et ervat avihem." They take Noah's clothing that he removed, and they cover him with hit. The very clothing that Noah removed in the vineyard are then referred to as the cover that's put back on him.
So what we have here is a very strange echoes here of vayachel, of starting, of yayin and of yonah, of these kind of agents that Noah turns to that sound strangely similar, that lead to something becoming visible, that Noah himself uncovers for that vision to take place. These parallels between the stories, they seem to imply it wasn't just that Noah started there and Noah started here. They seem to somehow imply that although the story of Noah freaking out in the Ark had come to an end, although God came back to the scene and Noah reemerged and there's the new earth, somehow it's as if Noah is once again right back there in the Ark, here in the vineyard. That he's somehow going through the same exact steps as he was when he felt himself completely alone and desperately fighting for his life.
The question is, what are we to make of that? Why would Noah be acting this way? After the whole thing seems to have been resolved, why is he somehow acting in similar ways? Because there's no birds here, there's no flood here, there's no dry land here. There's nothing for him to be seeking like he was back then.
Here I want to point to what I think is a key difference between the two episodes. We see the parallels, vayachel, yonah, seeing, cover, vayachel, yayin, seeing, cover. We see the parallels between the two stories, but I think a key difference here has to do with in each story, all of the activities that Noah is engaged in and all of the steps that he's walking through, they're happening in opposite directions. Here's what I mean.
In the Ark, the first time Noah is vayachel, everything he's doing is outward-focused. He's sending the dove out of the Ark. He wants to see what's happening out there on the earth. He uncovers the Ark so he can see the land outside where he is. In the vineyard all of it is actually happening inward towards Noah himself, he's "vayacheil," and he drinks wine. He ingests it. He takes it into his own body. What ends up being seen is him, his own naked body, and the uncovering his him uncovering himself. So these steps might be similar, but the way in which they're playing out, one is happening all out there and one is all happening to Noah himself.
I think that this might give us a little bit of a clue as to trying to understand what exactly Noah's behavior in the vineyard was about. Because back in the Ark it makes sense, right? The threat is outside. What Noah needs to know is, is there dry land for me out there? Is there a chance for me to survive out in this world? Is the flood over? So everything is outward.
Here, in the vineyard, there is no outside threat anymore. The Earth's been restored. God gives him a promise of protection and yet Noah seems to be struggling with a similar struggle and it's taking place internally. I'd go so far as to say that perhaps the flood really did end outside and God did give Noah this promise, but somehow inside of Noah the flood is still raging. And Noah is seeking, somehow, to put an end to those stormy waters that he has no way to stop because there isn't anything out there to take care of. There's just a self who seems to still be caught in the throes of whatever he was experiencing back in the Ark when he had no idea if he would survive. When he had no idea if God was still there with him.
In our contemporary language, what we might call this response of Noah, post-flood, is some kind of post-traumatic experience that he's having where he went through an extreme experience that came to an end. He reached safety. Yet there's something of that experience that he was not able to actually move on from. Even though the outside world looks different than it did back there, inside of himself he still feels like he's right back there. There's a part of him that did not leave the Ark.
On one level the trauma that Noah went through has to do with what we were talking about just before. Which is here was Noah, a man whose entire life and identity was defined by his attachment to God, his obedience of God's command and God being there for him. I'm going to destroy the whole world but you're My man, I’m going to take care of you. Noah does what God asks of him and God closes the door. You're safe Noah, I've got you.
Then months go by, weeks and months go by, and Noah is just left in the dark. It would be one thing for him to somehow go through this global devastation knowing God is by his side. That was his assurance. That was his lifeboat, so to speak, this whole time, that God is there for him. In those moments, those months and weeks in the Ark, where God was no longer communicating and he was really left, as far as he could tell, left on his own, something in him seems to have shattered. There's something in that relationship with God that had been his safe secure source of reliance for 600 years. Something changed there. Even though he came back, and the Earth was safe once again and God was back in the picture, what he experienced there did not just switch back. Something of that rupture remained with him.
It seems that, and I’m not saying that this was a conscious decision on Noah's behalf what he's doing in the vineyard, but when we see Noah acting again from a place of being alone, which we saw earlier was a place of feeling abandoned by God, so he turns to wine. He turns to intoxication. Something in that drunkenness was as if that part of Noah that he still felt like he never left the flood, that was horrified by that experience, was seeking a way to find dry land. But there's no dry land for him to go to. There's nowhere else for him to go to that's safer. All he could really do there was drink himself into a stupor and he could no longer exist in a world that looked safe but internally was not safe at all for him.
There's one other kind of surprising and also strange linguistic twist that I see happening here through this entire story. This has to do with also, a series of words that show up here, phrases, that seems that each time they come up, take on a slightly different twist. Do you remember when Noah got into the Ark at the end of Noah Act 1, the first part of the Noah story. We saw "vayiskor Hashem ba'ado," God closed the Ark on his behalf. God closed the Ark for Noah. A kind of protection. You did exactly what I asked of you, Noah, I've got you. I'm closing this Ark. You're safe. You're safe from this flood. "Vayiskor Hasehm ba'ado."
The flood goes on and in the beginning of Chapter 8, "vayizkor Elokim et Noach." Vayizkor mean, God remembers. God remembers Noah. No, it's not the same term as vayiskor, vayiskor in Hebrew is Samech-Gimmel-Reish, closing. Vayizkor, is remembering. But just listen to the similarity in the sounds. "Vayiskor Hashem ba'ado." "Vayizkor Elokim et Noach." The last thing God did was close the door on Noah's behalf. The next thing we hear, God is remembering Noah. Because of remembering Noah, God then starts to bring the flood to an end. Look at how God brings the flood to an end. First there's a wind to calm the waters. Then, "vayisachru ma'ayeinot darom," which means God closes up the waters of the deep, "v'arubot hashamayim," and the water channels from above. What God is doing, "vayisachru," He's sealing them up.
So listen to the rhymes here. Vayiskor Hashem. Vayizkor Elokim. Vayisachru, shutting up the water sources. Each one of these activities God is doing in order to protect Noah and in order to restore safely and normalcy to the Earth. Closing. Remembering. Sealing up the waters.
Look at what's happening when Noah gets to the vineyard. Noah plants the vineyard, he drinks wine, vayishkar, he gets drunk. Now that word, vayishkar, again, a different root, a different meaning, but a strangely similar set of sounds. If we just follow the sounds here, we have a kind of development from vayiskor, God closing on Noah's behalf; to vayizkor, to God remembering Noah; to vayisachru, sealing up the water channels. Then Noah, vayishkar, Noah's drunkenness.
Whereas we saw all of these activities, remembering Noah, closing up the water, Noah doesn't know that that's going on. He's not aware that this whole time God is remembering him. That God is putting the Earth together so that he can safely re-emerge. He knows that God closed the door but after that radio silence. Finally, when he's getting drunk, his drunkenness is his way of seeking to put that flood to an end. He didn't get the, God remembers you, God is closing up the waters for you. All he got was God shut the door and never talks to him again. While he's once again re-experiencing that crisis of being left alone in the Ark, all he really knows what to do with that is to intoxicate himself, vayishkar.
So in a sense, and while the Torah is using the language of trauma, it's not using our contemporary understanding and terminology for psychology. The truth is we don't even have much insight into Noah's internal experience other than what he is doing. But if we're looking at somebody who went through the intensity of an experience that he went through, and then unexpectedly seems to be acting in strangely similar ways but in a completely different context where it doesn't seem appropriate, that's in some ways, exactly how trauma does work in people. It's not about being objectively safe. There was something inside of him that was not soothed. Something inside him that was not quieted when he came out of the Ark. Because of the intensity of what he experienced back there.
Even the way in which the parallels -- they're almost like broken rhymes of one another. Yayim and Yonah, they're not the same thing. Uncovering yourself and uncovering the Ark, what are you doing here? This itself is, again, it's part of how trauma can play out in people who've gone through something so intense that they couldn't handle just that pattern of experience lives on and doesn't need to be in the same external circumstances anymore for that internal experience to continue.
I think in some ways it's exactly what we're seeing with Noah. He came out and he was objectively safe, but internally he was not safe anymore. Internally his ultimate source of safely had been cracked, had been scarred. In the vineyard we see him playing out that ongoing pain and that ongoing scar that he's still experiencing. A flood that has no end. Part of what I want us to consider here is to understand how this story of Noah fits with the entire story of Noah. When we first look at it it's like what's the ish tzaddik doing drunk and naked and cursing his progeny? That doesn't work together, does it? Is he righteous or is he not righteous? How does this story make any sense?
The other questions that come up. When he comes out of the Ark, even if it was hard for him, okay, but he should be better now. What I think we're seeing here is, no, it doesn't always work that way. It doesn't always work that way. That a human being, as righteous as they are and as safe as they end up, after going through a harrowing experience, there's something that can remain. That something that remains doesn't mean that they're a terrible person. It doesn’t mean that, all of a sudden, I don't get it. It's like one day he was one person and one day he was another person.
Well, something inside him changed. Something was affected by his experience. That same ish tzaddik, who was in such deeper lines and closeness with God, is the same one who was so deeply affected when he felt that God had abandoned him. The same one who at this point, at the end of his story in the vineyard, has no recourse for himself anymore. He doesn't know how to handle the residual effects of that experience. What I began saying last week is this part of Noah's story, it's actually a lot closer to our reality than the beginning of Noah's story. We don't know about God telling people, okay, here's our plan, the world's going to be destroyed by I picked you because you're the righteous one. Go get the animals. Go build My Ark for Me. It does have a kind of fairy tale quality to us because it's like other-worldly. It's not the world that we live in. This story of somebody drinking and getting into some kind of inappropriate involvement with their family members, cursing each other, there being some kind of breakdown in the family system. Oh, this stuff happens all the time, doesn't it?
Ami: This stuff happens every day. There's something that on the one hand is maybe uncomfortable for us to read this story and see Noah in this light, but in the same token maybe the Torah is also telling us something fundamental about the human condition. We are permeable creatures. We are affected by our experiences, even the righteous among us, the good among us.
You know there's something about this story that even reflects some of contemporary thinking in terms of how we relate to substance abuse or even addiction. Right? For a long time, and I think culturally this still exists in a lot of ways, people viewed addiction as a kind of character flaw in the person who was addicted to a substance. Oh, they're immoral and that's why the drink. Oh, they're just a bad product of a rotten apple and they should be locked up. Or they're kind of outcasts from society. There's something wrong with them.
What the Torah's telling us here is, you know what? That guy, Noah, he was a tzaddik. He was a righteous person. He too ended up here. He ended up here because he's human. In more recent times the field of addiction treatment and in thinking about the roots of addiction is much more focused now on what did this person go through and experience that led them to end up being dependent on the effects of a substance to feel okay in this world. The (inaudible 00:56:58) have shifted to understand that in many cases trauma is at the root of a lot of addictive and even abusive behaviors that we see. There's something about that perspective that I think allows for a lot more compassion and empathy and even the possibility of helping a person who's suffering in this way.
Let's look just here at how this story ends. You have two different reactions to Noah's drunkenness, to this state he's in. You have Ham who sees him and goes to tell his brothers what's happening. You have Shem and Japheth who understand their father's situation needs to be healed in some way. He needs to be covered. He's in this state not because he's a laughingstock now and we should just stand and point and scoff at him, but he's deserving of our respect and he's deserving of dignity still. They walk backwards and cover him. Their response models some degree of, in a sense, retaining the humanity and respect that their father deserves. Even though he's in this state right now, he's still the father that we know and that's deserving of respect.
Ham's response seems to be just one of shock and ridicule. Look at him. Look at the naked guy there. Look at this vulnerable unravelled human being. But the other brothers see something different, and it does seem that when Noah wakes up and relates to one with a curse and relates to one with a blessing, there's something that Noah is also reacting to there. Two different models of how to respond to somebody who's in this state. Two different perspectives of what are the stories we tell ourselves when we see somebody in a state of crisis, in a state of being unraveled. Are they to be ostracized? Pointed at? Othered? Are they a failure? Or are they to be respected? Honored? Cared for? Is there room for us to continue to connect with them, human to human in a way with dignity and respect?
Beyond relating to others, I think the Torah also potentially offers us a lens for understanding ourselves. We are not impermeable to our experiences. When we go through intense experiences it is possible, if not likely, that we might find ourselves needing other forms of support that we never needed before. We might even just find ourselves acting in ways that we're surprised by. I don't understand. Why am I acting this way? Why am I behaving this way? I was never like this before.
Here there's this opportunity also for us to understand that we can have deeper understanding and compassion for ourselves based on whatever we've gone through that might require a little more support than we had previously. Might take us some time to readjust when we emerge from the Ark.
There's a humanizing effect here. This is one of the Torah's very first stories about humanity on this planet. The story of drunkenness and family discord that comes in its wake, it's one of the first stories of humankind we here. In a sense it's a story that we still encounter in various forms. I think just seeing Noah here in the fullness of this story allows us to encounter these kinds of experiences with a lot more curiosity, empathy and understanding.
I'm sure this material sent your mind in all kinds of directions and sparked your own ideas about what it might mean. To me it connects very deeply to the question of how we related to emotional suffering, our own suffering, and the suffering of others. How will we react when we see people behaving in ways that cause us to feel shocked or uncomfortable. It's so easy to write someone off as disturbed, as someone who has problems and to mentally outcast them from the circle of society that we think we belong to. But these labels don't account for the causes beneath the behaviors. In a sense they discount the experience and humanity of the person standing before us and protect us from having to look ourselves in the mirror of humanity that they hold.
The questions we need to be asking ourselves are not what's wrong with this person, but what might have happened to this person that's causing them so much pain. Especially now as the world is waking up more and more to the effects of trauma. Reading Noah's story through this lens, gives me a sense of hopefulness that the Torah seems to be pointing to this kind of process in one of the most fundamental stories of humankind.
Beyond that, in a time in which we as a world are going through numerous global crises, including a global pandemic that has kept many of us, not unlike Noah, locked up for months on then. Disconnected from one another and tragically facing illness, loss and grief all around us.
This story offers me a degree of comfort in knowing that our suffering is not new. We're not the first people to lose our bearings, to lose the familiar sources of support. To me this story provides a powerful reminder of the need to be curious, to care for ourselves and for one another and seek out the kinds of support that we are all deserving of and can all benefit from. Thanks for listening.