Friday, October 19, 2012

Parsha Noach: Avoiding the Spiritual Downfall That Led to Noah's Drunkenness

Much of this week's Torah portion is focused on the story of Noah and the Great Flood. Where I would like to focus is the aftermath of the Flood, specifically with Noah and how he reacted. After G-d creates  the rainbow as a covenantal sign that He won't flood the Earth again in such a manner, Noah has an intriguing reaction: he creates a vineyard, becomes drunk and ends up being "uncovered" in his tent (Genesis 9:20-21). How is it possible that a man who was considered a righteous man and "perfect in his generations" (Genesis 6:9) fell so low?

One explanation is that Noah was experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Here is a man who just got off a boat and realized that short of the family members and animals he brought on the ark, the whole world had be obliterated. To witness such a level of destruction can be traumatic.

That's one explanation. Another one is the opposite side of the spectrum: he couldn't handle success. R. Daniel Gordis refers to this as the "Noah Syndrome." Noah was a guy building an ark because "G-d told him to do so," and everyone thought he was off his rocker. But Noah ended up being right. Noah was on such a spiritual high of loftier endeavors that coming back to the banality of everyday work. In order to maintain that high, what did Noah do? Much like you see with some celebrities (e.g., John Belushi, Chris Farley): once they accomplish something huge, life can feel empty. In order to maintain or increase the feeling of that rush, they turn to substance abuse.

If Noah were really serving G-d and truly had a sense of purpose in that, he would have realized that his mission didn't end with building the ark because spirituality is an ongoing process. Instead, he drank to excess. Noah's problem wasn't handling the success, but rather that he had an inflated ego. Going back to Genesis 6:9, Noah was called righteous, and that's how the English translation is read. Looking at the Hebrew phrase, צדיק תמים, gives a slightly different picture. It is true that צדיק means "righteous man." It is the adjective תמים that caught my eye. The word תמים can mean "innocent" or "guileless," but it can also mean "simpleminded." It is hard to figure out which is correct. On the one hand, the word צדיק is not thrown around lightly. On the other hand, as Rashi points out, Noah was a righteous man "in his generation," and continues to say that if Noah would have been in the generation of Abraham, Noah would have been considered insignificant. Given the Jewish tradition's overall negative view of Noah, I have to believe in the latter.

I think the real reason of Noah's drunkenness makes sense when you compare Noah to Abraham. Noah walked with G-d (Genesis 6:9). Noah always obeyed G-d and never questioned. Abraham, on the other hand, walked before G-d (Genesis 17:1). Abraham was more proactive in his spirituality. Not only did he question G-d, but he didn't wait for G-d to tell him what to do. Abraham was aware of his spiritual goals and actively worked for the betterment of the world around him. What was Noah's response when G-d said He was going to flood the planet? Complete accord. Noah did not question G-d about the flood, and he neither confront his contemporaries nor prayed for them. Noah was self-righteous and had zero impact on his neighbors. When he got off the ark, he realized what how complacency had resulted, and thus felt the need to drink as a form of escapism.

How do we avoid the tumultuous, downward spiral of Noah? I think there can be multiple answers, but I will attempt to give a few. One, self-righteousness is not the sort of righteousness that G-d is requires of us. Although it is important that we are taken care of, whether that is physically, emotionally, or mentally, we also need to realize that righteousness transcends us; it's about how you interact with others. Two, a spiritual ideal is not one of complacency or passivity. While one is to keep a calm soul, one does not remove themselves from the world or act indifferent with what's going on because the fallacious notion of "oh, this is G-d's will" has been developed. G-d doesn't want the status quo; G-d wants us to leave the world a better place than we found it. Third has to do with how we interact with materialism. Like with almost anything else, things are not inherently good or evil. It's how we use them to elevate our lives. Money can be used for something good like tzedakah or something bad like bribery or fraud. The same thing goes with wine: it can be used elevate a mundane moment to make it a spiritual one or like Noah illustrated, it can be used for belligerent drinking. I honestly believe that to elevate the mundane into the spiritual is Judaism's response to resolve the supposed dichotomy between materialism and aestheticism. When we take these lessons into consideration, rather than taking the plunge into emotional and spiritual oblivion that Noah took, we can take the ascend ever higher and bring our spirituality to a much preferred level from which we can derive meaning and joy in our lives.

שבת שלום!

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