Upon exiting the tevah, Noach plants a vine; the Torah reports that no sooner had the vine produced its fruits than Noach drank from the wine of the grapes, became drunk and disrobed within his tent. Cham, Noach’s son, sees his father’s nakedness and tells his brothers of his discovery; they enter and respectfully cover up their father and upon his return to sobriety, Noach, realizing what his Cham has done, curses him.
This deplorable episode begs the obvious question: what was Noach thinking? This was a man who God Himself labeled as a tzadik, who was saved while the rest of the world was destroyed and, along with his family, was given another chance to begin the world anew – how could Noach abuse the very first fruits of his Divinely bestowed privileged opportunity?
There are numerous similarities between Adam HaRishon and Noach found within the text itself and the overall themes of each of their stories. For example, both Adam and Noach were ‘first people’, ‘placed’ within a new world; both are men ‘from the ground’ (the Torah describes Noach at the beginning of this episode as ‘a man of the ground’); both have a tree whose fruit they eat from ‘incorrectly’. Through these comparisons the Torah creates a distinct connection between these two men, and therefore it is incumbent upon us to glean a deeper message from the actions of Noach in this week’s parsha through the context of Adam and his story.
A quick, basic review of Adam and Chavah’s sin: they were told not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and in eating from it, according to the Rambam and R. Hirsch, they expressed a deep desire to focus on the physical rather than the spiritual world given to them by God in Gan Eden. In response, God removed them from their purely spiritual environs and forced Adam and Chavah to now also worry about their physical sustenance thereby demonstrating exactly what they had given up by defying God’s command. However, their mission remained the same: they must still ‘live’ in God’s world and appreciate His presence, but now they would also have to contend with the physical world’s distracting responsibilities, making their spiritual mission much more difficult.
After the flood, Noach is ‘reborn’, given another chance in a physical world (where humankind must now reside) to express his understanding of God and pursue his Divine mission. Upon his exit he takes the very animals he had cared for throughout his sojourn in the tevah and raises them up as korbanot to God – he uses the physical world to connect with God! – and God’s response, after ‘smelling’ the sweet fragrance of the korbanot, is to make an oath never to destroy the world again! Bingo. So why does Noach then make such a terrible decision in the very next episode of the grapes from the vine? In actuality, he approached this event with the very same laudatory intention used in the praiseworthy bringing of the korbanot – he wanted to connect more strongly with God using the physical world around him. Through the imbibing and disrobing (the removal of the outer garments by a navi in the throes of prophecy is found in the book of Shmuel), Noach looked to ‘remove’ the hindrances of the physical world in order to attain an even higher level of connection with God; however, the Torah tells us why this seemingly commendable action went awry: ‘he got drunk’ i.e. not a mere ‘loosening’ intoxication but an abused imbibing. Noach attempted to attain the heights of spiritual closeness that Adam possessed in Gan Eden (pre-sin, Adam and Chavah are also naked) looking to recreate that privileged experience; but, instead of using what he had around him he abused it, looking to artificially release himself totally from the bonds of the physical world. And therein lies his mistake: from the moment of Adam and Chavah’s punishment, humankind was required to strive towards a relationship with God from within the context of the world they lived; the opportunity to live ‘above’ the world, or supernaturally, in God’s presence was lost when Adam and Chavah made that fateful choice. And this is why Cham saw his father’s ‘nakedness’, for although there is precedent for prophets shedding their external, physical garments during true prophecy, Noach had attained his ‘elevated’ state through abused physical intoxication and therefore only a lowly physical nakedness was witnessed and appreciated.
And with this understanding, we can now truly understand and hopefully more significantly perform the physical mitzvot commanded of us. As tangible beings in a tangible world God has given us tangible actions with which to create and sustain a relationship with Him; we are obligated to correctly use our world within the context of these mitzvot to facilitate our achieving this truest of ideals.
As R. Samson Raphael Hirsch writes in his work The Nineteen Letters:
“’There is one God…Who is [the people’s] Creator, Lawgiver, Judge, Guide, Keeper and Father. All creatures are His children…The [attainment of the understanding of this role God plays in our lives] is sufficient as the base on which to build one’s life, and everything granted by God merely serves as the means to carry out this task.”