Noach the Farmer – a shiur by Rav Yonatan Horovitz
We are all familiar with the conflicting opinions of chazal as to the true nature of Noach’s personality. As cited by Rashi on the first passuk of this week’s parsha, there were those who considered the word “bedorotav” (in his generation) to be testifying to the greatness of Noach whilst others considered the choice of language used by the Torah to signify the fact that Noach was merely the best of a bad lot. One wonders what brought our sages to these opinions. We will investigate in this shiur whether it is not only the interpretation of the single word “bedorotav” which led to the opposing attitudes towards Noach but also the way we are to view a latter episode in Noach’s colorful life.
Following Noach’s departure from the ark and the subsequent covenant of the Keshet, the rainbow, we are told: “Vayachel Noach ish ha’adama, vayita karem” (Bereishit 9:20). The second half of this verse is simple to translate: he planted a vineyard. The first part is more challenging to translate or explain. What is exactly meant by the word “vayachel”? Before we attempt to understand this, let us look at the framework for the entire episode.
This story begins by telling us that the sons of Noach who emerge from the ark were Shem, Cham and Yefet. (Bereishit 9:18) This seems to state the obvious as we know the names of Noach’s sons and the Torah has already stated that Noach and his sons left the confines of the ark. In anticipation of this question, the Torah tells us in the next pasuk: “these three were the sons of Noach, and from these the whole world branched off.” The reason the Torah records once again the sons of Noach is to emphasize that they form the basis of the human race following the flood. We would therefore expect to find the genealogy lists following this opening. However, the natural flow of the narrative is interrupted by the story of Noach’s drunkenness and the subsequent events. Why is this so? If we look back at pasuk 18, we note that in addition to stating the names of Noach’s sons, the Torah adds: “and Cham is the father of Cana’an. Furthermore, several verses later, when the Torah describes the actions Cham performs whilst his father is inebriated, Cham is again called the father of Cana’an. On awakening and discovering what had happened, Noach curses not Cham, but Cana’an! All of the above suggests that this is not a story about Noach but about Ca’ana’an. The episode described portrays Cham as an immoral individual in contrast to his brothers who show their father due respect. We can now appreciate why it is that the nation of Cana’an is viewed by the Torah as one which exhibits the worst behavior and which upholds values antithetical to the Torah in particular and society in general.
Based on the above, the entire event of Noach planting the vineyard and the ensuing actions of his sons is not a story about Noach. Rather, it is an introduction to the genealogy of the descendants of Noach and the background for our harsh attitude towards the nation of Cana’an. This approach is found in a slightly different form in the commentary of Radak to these pesukim.
Radak presents a second outlook on this episode. He points out that Noach had been destined to work the land from birth. The name Noach was given to the child with the following reasoning: “this one will provide us relief from our work and from the toil of our hands, out of the very soil which Hashem placed under a curse” (Bereishit 5:29) The name Noach is connected to the word “yenachamenu” translated here as will provide us relief. Although the exact understanding of this sentence is beyond the scope of this shiur, it is clear that Noach was earmarked as a farmer, a man of agriculture, from an early age. Perhaps this is what prompts Radak to explain that the word “vayachel” which can be translated as he began, does not refer to the working of the land per se but rather to the planting of the vineyard. Noach, who was already a farmer of the land, was the first to plant a vineyard. Radak goes on to state that this is the reason that Noach became drunk. Being the first person to plant a vineyard and thus to produce wine, he was unaware of its’ intoxicating effects. As a result of this Noach cannot be blamed for what happened. He could not know beforehand what would be the result of drinking the wine and he certainly bore no responsibility for the actions of his son, Cham. Radak concludes that the reason that this story is included in the Torah is to warn us of the dangerous effects of alcohol and the dramatic consequences that could result from its consumption.
The two approaches of the Radak to the story of Noach and the vineyard do not stain the righteous description of Noach in the first half of the parsha. As the one person chosen by God out of an entire nation which was destined for destruction, the accolade “tzadik” would seem appropriate. We could suggest that those of Chazal who adopt the explanations proposed by Radak to the events at the end of the parsha see no reason to interpret the word “bedorotav” to the detriment of Noach. Noach was a righteous man, unique in his generation who would have been all the greater had he lived during the time of Avraham.
But what of the opposing outlook of Chazal? Let us return to the word “vayachel”. Rashi, quoting Bereishit Rabbah implies that the root of the word is “chol” meaning secular, or not holy. Rashi continues to say that Noach should have planted something else first. What this might be, Rashi does not say but let us suggest something based on a sicha I heard many years ago from Mori VeRabi, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein Shlita. Noach is described here as an “ish adama”. This implies that Noach embraced the ground, was almost married to the soil. Herein lay Noach’s mistake. Though his livelihood may have stemmed from agriculture, he should not have defined himself as “ish adama”. Particularly after all that he had seen and witnessed, after having been spoken to directly by Hashem on several occasions, Noach should have been an “Ish Elokim” a man who defines himself based on his relationship with the Almighty. Yes, he worked the land but this became part of his character, his reason to exist in the world. Maybe it is this that concerns the midrash quoted in Rashi. Surely Noach should have begun his post flood endeavors with something more spiritual, more Godly orientated than a vineyard. The continuation of the story can therefore be viewed as the tragic result of this error in judgment. Noach failed to define himself based on his earlier experiences as a man of God but rather sufficed with being a simple farmer. From here, the descent to unsavory acts was slippery and fast.
This approach to the story places Noach in a very different light, thus paving the way for a far more critical attitude towards Noach. “Bedorotav”, the word employed in the first pasuk in the parsha can now be interpreted to relate to the limited scope of the Torah’s description of Noach as righteous. Within his generation he may have been considered to be righteous but had he lived at the time of Avraham he would have remained anonymous.
The final explanation of this episode leaves us with much food for thought. Not only Noach was required to define himself as an “ish Elokim”. We all, whether we are engineers are lawyers, while at our workplace or at home, must never lose sight of the fact that we are here to serve God and must therefore all strive to become an “Ish Elokim”. The story of creation in Bereishit and the story of re-creation in this week’s parsha mandate nothing less.
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