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Noach: A Righteous Man of the Earth

Like many characters in Tanach, Noach is singularly righteous and enigmatic. Often, in the descriptions of Biblical personalities, it is all too easy to read about flaws, mistakes, and shortcomings and lose sight of the greatness of these individuals. There is much to learn from Noach as highlighted in this week’s parsha, and there is a tremendous sense of validation that can be derived from a careful analysis of his deeds and misdeeds. Yet, it is also critically important to approach his story with humility and with the recognition that Noach was an “ish Tzadik,” a virtuous and incredibly spiritually connected man who spoke with God and who was chosen by God to be saved from the greatest destruction to ever befall the universe.

In two places in our Parsha, we read two seemingly opposing descriptions of Noach. When we first hear about him before the Mabul, the Pasuk (6:9) says, “Noach Ish Tzadik, Tamim Haya Bidorosav, Es HaElokim Hishalech Noach,” - Noach was a righteous man, perfect in his generation, a man who walked with God. Later, after the flood, when Noach leaves the Teivah with his family and sets out to repopulate and regenerate the earth, Noach is referred to as an “ish ha’adama,” a man of the earth, as the pasuk (9:20) says, “VaYachel Noach Ish HaAdama VaYitah Karem.” Rashi explains this verse to mean, and Noach, a man of the earth, made himself mundane (VaYichal, like from the word “chol,”) and planted a vineyard. He then drinks the wine he produces from the grapes he grows and is found uncovered in his tent by his sons.

As a man who was first described as “walking with God,” this behavior appears to be in direct contradistinction to Noach’s typical character. Rashi notes that the planting of the vineyard alone is problematic, which is why the verse describes this behavior as “VaYachel,” a mundane, unholy, non-spiritual act. The use of the word VaYachel is a criticism of Noach in that the first thing he plants after leaving the Teiva is a vineyard, as opposed to any other plants. The Ramban explains that the word VaYachel is not only referring to Noach’s partaking in the mundane activity of planting a vineyard, but is also connected to the word “Haschala,” beginning, in that Noach was the first person to plant an entire vineyard as opposed to just one vine, due to his excitement to grow enough grapes to make wine.

How is it that Noach, who refrained from the greed and immorality so characteristic of his generation, succumbs to the mundane indulgence of wine? What led to this behavior?

Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hirsch Weinreb notes that wine and other substances are one avenue to a heightened experience, which some perceive as spiritual. Noach’s return to the world after the Flood must have been quite shocking to his system. Absent the daily concerns of caring for his family and the animals aboard the Teivah, in the aftermath of the most devastating destruction ever rendered to mankind, Noach is thrust back into the reality of an empty, desolate universe. We can only imagine the depths of Noach’s sense of utter confusion and possibly despair. Furthermore, prior to the Flood, Noach’s identity as an Ish Tzadik who walked with God was more prevalent than his sub-identity as a man, created, as Rabbi Benjamin Yudin notes[1], to rule over the earth - as the Pasuk says, “u’milu es ha’aretz, vi’kivshuhah,” and you will fill the land and rein over it (Breishis 1:29). Though perhaps Noach had worked the land before the Flood, this now becomes his sole occupation and most important role; whereas before he was an emissary of God in a far more objectively spiritual plane, now he must take up the mantle of a man of the earth, working the land and deriving from it all that is needed to further human existence.

Additionally, Rashi notes that Noach walked with God, as opposed to Avraham who walked before God. Rashi explains that Noach relied on God to maintain his spiritual status, while Avraham was able to remain connected on his own. Perhaps, faced with the profound mundaneness of the world after the Flood, Noach’s intention in planting the vineyard was, as R’ Dr. Weinreb postulates, an attempt to access a greater spiritual high.

R’ Wolbe compares this seismic shift in Noach’s life as akin to a spaceship re-entering the atmosphere. If reentry occurs at even one degree less than the correct angle, the ship will explode. Returning to “regular life” after any kind of spiritual high can be quite a fragile undertaking. We just experienced this when we returned to “regular life” after Elul and the Yamim Noraim. As we discussed last week, this kind of transition can be quite difficult. There remains a vacuum where intense spirituality just resided in us, and the urge to fill it – with anything at all – is strong. Perhaps this is one explanation for Noach’s behavior after the Flood.

Yet there is another layer to this that helps us further understand Noach’s experience and may help to validate our own difficulties. The Chasam Sofer highlights that while Noach’s description as an “Ish Ha’Adama” can be seen as a shortcoming (as Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks writes, “the man of God has become a man of the soil[2],”), perhaps being an Ish HaAdama is a praise of Noach - in his becoming a man who actualizes that which is written about Adam HaRishon in Breishis, as cited above. Man is meant to rein over nature, not destroy it or be destroyed by it. The generation of the flood was so corrupt that their corruption bled into the land itself, where even if you planted one seed, another different crop would grow. Man and earth are inherently linked; we are made of the ground and have a physical body. Yet mankind’s job is to demonstrate through our actions that we have control over physicality, by elevating the physical for spiritual use. The Chasam Sofer notes that Noach’s intention in planting the vineyard was to be that kind of Ish Ha’Adama, and that he meant to use the wine for Yayin Nesech as part of his sacrifices to God. Noach’s mistake was in drinking the wine, not in planting the vineyard. The Malbim echoes this explanation, noting that Noach didn’t intend to become drunk, but only wanted to show that he was ready to take on the role of man as master of the land.

Noach’s intentions were good, and his inherent righteousness is not to be minimized. At the same time, perhaps some of the lessons to be derived from Noach’s story are as follows. Firstly, descent from a spiritual high can be precarious, and such experiences must be planned for accordingly. In considering our own reentry into the mundane atmosphere of life after the Yamim Noraim, this is especially important to consider. Furthermore, we are all experiencing a life in a surreal, quasi-quarantined state, where we are deprived from certain physical and spiritual experiences; return to “real life” (if such a thing is possible) will be fraught with similar challenges, and we must begin now to do what DBT therapists call Coping Ahead, planning for difficult situations ahead of time and envisioning how we can overcome those challenges.

Lastly, it is always helpful to be reminded of this fine line we walk between physicality and spirituality, and to recognize the hardships inherent in the synthesis of our existence as both physical and spiritual beings. We are innately connected to nature and nature to us; our actions affect nature and the land and what comes from it affects us. Seasons, creatures, plants, bacteria, the very air we breathe - all are impacted by our actions and choices, and in turn we are impacted. We must honor physicality, its role, its influence, its importance in our lives, while also not forgetting that we are meant to rule over it. We are meant to utilize physicality and elevate it when we can, and certainly to try not to be degraded by it. This is also why Noach is allowed to eat animals when he leaves the Teivah, as a sign that man is meant to be different than animals, for we have our intellect and our spirituality, while animals do not. When we forget or neglect this notion, the earth – and our physicality– can rule over us.

This week, let us consider the ways in which we might experience a spiritual vacuum during this time, and cope ahead to address any urges to fill that void in ineffective ways. Furthermore, let us recognize that we are meant to rule over earth, to impact it in a positive way, and to have a modicum of control over our physicality. We are not meant to dismiss, push away, or negate our physicality, but rather to elevate it, to utilize it in a positive manner, whether that’s enjoying wine for Kiddush on Friday night or through appreciating the melodious sounds of music that uplift or soothe our souls. This season is filled with physical comforts and an emphasis on the cycles of the earth; leaves fall, pumpkins are picked, cider is drunk, sweaters are donned – there is a cozy comfort in the physicality of the world around us, a gift from Hashem reminding us that the world is made for us, a demonstration of His love for us. Perhaps we can see these comforts as just that, an access point to spirituality as the spiritual heights achieved these past months begin to recede. There is no greater way to demonstrate our love for God than by using these gifts to connect with Him.

[1] Yudin, Benjamin. Rabbi Benjamin Yudin on the Parsha, Mosaica Press, 2013.

[2] Sacks, Rabbi Lord Jonathan. “On Leadership: Righteousness is Not Leadership.” Covenant and Conversation, 20 October 2020.

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