Thursday, March 30, 2023

I read that a well-respected literature professor once referred to Noach as the “Woody Allen” of prophets. Perhaps, the Rodney Dangerfield of prophets would have been a better choice, for Noach gets no respect. In the course of the parsha, Hashem issues seven commandments for future generations. These commandments do not, however, bear Noach’s name directly. They are referred to as “Sheva mitzvot bnei Noach — the seven commandments of the descendants of Noach (‘שבע מצוות בני נח ’).”

Why is Noach not honored by having the commandments bear his name? Then, of course, there is the famous commentary on the first verse of this parsha. The verse states: “Noach was a righteous man, he was perfect in his generation …” Picking up on the words, “in his generation,” the interpretation is given that Noach was only righteous by comparison to his generation. Had Noach lived in a better generation, he would have been unworthy of notice. This somewhat negative view seems to find some justification when we turn to the end of Noach’s story.

In the sixth aliyah, the Torah tells us that: “וַיָּ֥חֶל נֹ֖חַ אִ֣ישׁ הָֽאֲדָמָ֑ה וַיִּטַּ֖ע כָּֽרֶם.” Rashi understand the word “וַיָּ֥חֶל” to mean “חולין,” which could be rendered as unsanctified, or profane or perhaps, even as debased. Thus, the verse would mean: “Noach, the master of husbandry debased himself by planting a vineyard.” Rashi explains that grapes from a vineyard should not have been Noach’s first choice of the crop when commencing to rebuild the world. The selection of grapes was not simply a poor husbandry choice, but represented philosophical failure. This failure explains both the Torah’s harsh criticism that Noach debased himself, and also why the seven mitzvot are not named for him. Further, it provides insight into the reprehensible action taken by Noach’s son Ham, father of Canaan.

The Gemara (Sanhedrin 70a) gives several possible suspects for the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. The first suggestion is that fruit was grapes from which Adam made, and drank wine. The Gemara comments that there is nothing that brings on wailing as does wine. That same Gemara laments that Noach should have learnt from Adam’s error and planted something else. I suggest that Noach knew exactly what he was doing.

Noach was making a statement by planting the very fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Noach likely knew that, eventually, Adam would have been allowed to eat the fruit. Adam’s error was in taking the fruit too soon, before being ready for the knowledge it imparted. Noach was now expressing a belief that because Hashem singled him out as “righteous,” and chose him to save the world, he now occupied a position that enabled him to arbitrate good and evil for all his descendants. Of course, Noach did not enjoy such status. Only Hashem can arbitrate good and evil. Only Hashem can set the laws for mankind. This is why the laws that Hashem enunciated at this point are not called directly by Noach’s name. Noach’s choice also likely influenced Ham’s actions.

Ham likely questioned: “why should Noach be the only arbitrator of good and evil?” Ham could have legitimately reasoned that, after all, they were all on the ark and were all saved. Each of them could have been the decider of what was appropriate conduct. With this mindset, Ham went forth and committed the heinous act upon his father which the Gemara suggested could have been either, or both, castration or sodomy. Noach was the creator of his own fate and set the tone for the story of the tower of Babel which follows.

The generation of the dispersion — those that sought to build a tower to heaven to fight against Hashem — viewed themselves as Hashem equals. They chose to build where there were no large stones to serve as natural building material. Rather, they would create bricks... In their minds, just as Hashem created the world out of nothingness; so too, they also would create building materials that had not previously existed. Why should they not act like Hashem? Did not their ancestor, Noach, teach them that they were Hashem’s equals? For just as He decides good and evil, so could they.

Regrettably, Noach’s error, and that of the generation of the dispersion, survives to this day. To this day, we are intoxicated with our own achievements, overly pleased with our intellect and our technology and quite certain that we can decide right and wrong, good and evil. There are even segments of our people who believe that they have advanced so far, as to have the ability to “update” our mesorah. They are drunk with their own accomplishments. That never ends well, just ask Noach


William S.J. Fraenkel received a Bachelors of Arts in Religion and a law degree from NYU and served as a Board member and officer of several orthodox shuls. The opinions expressed in this dvar Torah are solely his own.

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