By Rebbetzin Lauren Levin 

The struggle after the storm

Parshat Noah tells the story of one man who stood above the crowd. Against the rest of humanity, he remained true to himself and faithful to God. He cared for his family and a plethora of animals with compassion in the most extraordinary circumstances. Then he had to go out of his utopian oasis to confront the destruction and ultimately be the one to repopulate the earth with moral descendants.

And yet this hero seems absent from the epilogue of the Noah story. The last tale we hear of him resembles a tragic end:

“And Noah began to be a master of the soil, and he planted a vineyard. And he drank of the wine and became drunk, and he uncovered himself within his tent. And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father’s nakedness, and he told his two brothers outside. And Shem and Japheth took the garment, and they placed [it] on both of their shoulders, and they walked backwards, and they covered their father’s nakedness, and their faces were turned backwards, so that they did not see their father’s nakedness. And Noah awoke from his wine, and he knew what his small son had done to him.”[1]

The sages attribute Noah’s downfall to his choice of plantation. Whilst the description of a vineyard leads us to the conclusion that he planted grapevines, it may well be that Noah planted figs, not grapes[2]. Indeed the sages contend that Noah had taken twigs and branches from fig trees into the ark with him. The properties of the fig tree renders it fragile and he realised that it would be easily damaged by the rain[3]. By taking a relic of the pre flood world, he would be able to replant them in the post flood era. Yet his commitment to collecting such twigs was not solely driven by keen botany. The history of the fig was significant. Adam and Eve had covered themselves with fig leaves after eating from the tree of knowledge, and ever since then, it was associated with desire.[4] If this is the case, Noah’s care to collect parts of the fig tree so he would be able to replant it, attested to his commitment to rebuilding the world. As he left the ark, it was time to confront that mission. But rebuilding as a survivor in the face of destruction is no small task, and despite his commitment, he faltered in this mission, leaving himself vulnerable and exposed.

Indeed we can see how Noah, who had thrived on ‘survival mode’, began to struggle post-flood. In the beginning of the story, we are told on several occasions that ‘Noah did everything God told him to do’[5]. Despite all the difficulties, Noah stood strong. This obedience begins to disintegrate as Noah faces the new desolate world in the aftermath of the deluge. God tells him, “Go out of the ark, you and your wife, and your sons, and your sons’ wives with you”.[6] Yet when we hear of Noah’s exit, there is a deviation from the command. Instead of coming out with his wife, and then his sons with their wives, the men all exit first: “So Noah went out, and his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives with him.[7]Albeit subtle, this change testifies that it is one thing to be committed to repopulate and rebuild, it is another to face the future as a happy family when facing devastation and morbidity in the face. It is now that Noah faces his greatest struggle, to face the future without feeling trapped and committed to the past. Elie Wiesel called Noah ‘the first survivor’. In his own work ‘Day’, Wiesel grapples with these feelings that tortured so many survivors post holocaust.

The story of Noah parallels in many ways the story of Sodom being destroyed. Both relate to entire populations being destroyed; both include a warning, in both just one family is saved, and both contain an epilogue involving the survivor becoming drunk, vulnerable and sexually exposed before their children. The irony is that where at the beginning of the story Noah is parallel to the heroic Abraham, by the end he has followed a downward spiral to suffer the same fate as the pitiful Lot, sexually exposed and betrayed by his children.

Just ten generations into the civilisation of the world, the Torah is teaching us about the impact of trauma. We rally around people during their time of crisis, and marvel at their strength and stoicism. But the epilogue of the Noah story conveys the psychological truth that so often the greatest support is required when after the eye of the storm. The adrenaline has died down, and there is time to think. The struggle, pain, and exhaustion are overwhelming. There are two responses: that of Ham, or that of Shem and Yefeth. Ham represents those who are oblivious to the continued suffering, apathetic, or even exploit the apparent vulnerability. By contrast, Shem and Yefeth’s empathetic and supportive response presents us with a model to emulate – to continue to be there for those we love long after the crisis is over. It is for this that Noah blesses them:  “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Shem, and may Canaan be a slave to them[8].

[1] 9:20-24

[2] Rashi ibid, Genesis Raba there.

[3] Mizrachi on Rashi

[4] Siftei Chachamim

[5] 6:22, 7:5

[6] 8:16

[7][7] 8:18

[8] 9 26