For centuries, our sages have debated the relative moral status of our sedra's title character. The Torah describes Noah as "wholehearted and righteous in his generation." Do these descriptors praise Noah — or damn him?
Some claim that maintaining one's moral compass during a depraved age represents high ethical achievement. Others state that Noah would have been dwarfed had he lived among true tzaddikim like Abraham or Moses.
The latter turned people from iniquity and interceded with God when their generations sinned. Noah had 120 years while building the ark to influence his neighbors. Not only did he convert no one, the Torah doesn't even cite an instance of Noah praying on behalf of his peers.
An incident following the flood seems to further diminish Noah's status. Upon leaving the ark and offering a sacrifice, he immediately planted a vineyard. He then drank excessively from its wine, which placed him in a compromising position.
Many of us can understand why Noah would want a drink. Yet behind the negative example of his drunkenness lies a more subtle lesson that can guide us as we move forward into the new year.
According to Torah and tradition, Noah and his wife, Aymzera, were charged with assembling all forms of animal and plant life to be preserved within the ark. Obviously, their labors set the stage for the ultimate revitalization of the Earth. The creatures were to be set free to roam and procreate; the vegetation was to spread and thrive once again. Thus, the replanting of the grapevines seems to have been part of God's plan from the beginning. So, in addition to his inebriation, where did Noah go wrong? Perhaps it was not in his planting, but in his priorities.
Certainly, a barren earth needs to be replenished. Yet rather than first planting grain or fruit trees, Noah started with grapes. This choice helped determine his future efforts, diverting him from more useful endeavors, and ultimately leading to his drunkenness and shame. This decision set the stage for what followed.
I recently saw a picture of a terrifying car crash. The car, perched precariously on a highway overpass, had flipped over and was totally demolished. But just as stunning was the picture of a woman poised next to it. Rather than call 911 or look inside for trapped riders, she stood there brushing her hair.
It's sad to think how often we stand before the proverbial collisions of life while metaphorically "brushing our hair." A recent survey indicated that almost three-quarters of us prioritized not scientist, teacher or business tycoon, but celebrity, rock star or sports hero as the occupation we'd most like to pursue.
Consider the important issues of our time: the environment, peace in the Middle East, the state of the economy. Now consider the amount of time our TV "news shows" allot to these issues, as opposed to reporting scandal among the rich, famous and politically connected. How much time do we give to worthy causes, to bettering ourselves and others, to maintaining relationships with those we love? How much do we fritter away on diversions?
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel used to cringe at the expression "killing time." Time, he would say, is to live. As Noah himself discovered, it is how we prioritize what we do with our time that determines the trajectory, quality and outcomes of how we live.
Rabbi Howard A. Addison is the religious leader of Congregation Melrose B'nai Israel Emanu-El in Cheltenham. E-mail him at: [email protected]