OU Torah Insights ProjectParashat Noach
Secular scholars speak of the story of the flood as if it were a myth, or a fairy tale. Not surprisingly, several ancient documents report striking parallels to the story of the flood.
Perhaps, the most famous document is the Babylonian "Epic of Gilgamish," which tells the story of a man by the name of Utnapishtim. The gods decide to destroy the earth, there is a great flood, and because Utnapishtim is the favorite of one of the gods, Eau, he is saved.
Despite the parallels between the "Epic of Gilgamish" and the Torah's story of Noach, they are strikingly different. In the Babylonian story, the gods arbitrarily decide to destroy the earth as if it were a plaything. Furthermore, the gods choose to save Utnapishtim only because he is a "favorite" of theirs, not because he is worthy of being saved.
In Parshas Noach, however, there is a moral imperative. The world is flooded not because G-d arbitrarily decides to destroy the world, but because it had become corrupt and destructive. Noach is not arbitrarily saved. He is deserving. He is a "righteous man, perfect in his generation. With G-d, Noach walked."
But the flood changed Noach. After a year on the ark, Noach is finally commanded by G-d to leave. A normal person would have been jumping out his skin to get out of the ark. But Noach is hesitant to leave. Why?
Elie Weisel, the great writer, offers a poignant insight. Weisel calls Noach the first "survivor." The world had experienced a Holocaust, and Noach was reluctant to walk out of the ark because he knew that the entire world was one giant graveyard for all the people he had knownand he just couldn't face it.
Once on dry land, after giving thanks to G-d and bringing sacrifices, the Torah tells us that Noach's reaction to the flood is to plant. Planting after a great destruction is surely a meaningful and satisfying response. It represents hope and belief in the future.
But what does Noach plant? He plants a vine and drinks the wine of the vineyard. He becomes drunk and wallows in the muck in his tent. Poor Noach. He cannot face the fact that everybody except himself and his immediate family were destroyed in the flood. He is unable to face reality. He needs an escape and resorts to alcohol. He becomes a drunkard.
Noach's response to the flood is not dissimilar to the reactions of some Holocaust survivors in our own generation. Some survivors were just not capable of facing the fact that they were singled out to live, while their beloved friends and relatives, mothers, fathers, sons, and daughters, had been murdered.
What is the reaction of those who behold Noach in this desperate state? The Torah tells us that Noach had three sons: Sheim, Cham, and Yefes.
Cham "saw [Noachs] nakedness" and told his two brothers outside. Our Sages note that this expression has sexual connotations, and, in fact, Cham did not just mock is father; he sodomized or castrated him.
Sheim and Yefes respond to Chams claim by taking a cloak and walking backwards into Noachs tent, so that they would not see their father's nakedness. They took the cloak and covered him.
When Noach awoke from his stupor, he knew what his youngest son, Cham, had done to him. Noach cries out, "May Canaan be cursed." Oddly enough, Noach doesn't curse his own son, Cham, but Cham's son, Canaan. "He will always be a slave to his brothers."
Very intriguing. Why does Noach curse his grandson and not his son?
Perhaps it is because, of all the children, Cham was the only one who was himself a father. Cham should have been aware of how difficult it is to be a parent. Of all the children, Cham should have been most sensitive to Noach's plight. Yet he was the least sensitive!
Noach says, if that's the way you behave, if that's the model you intend to provide for your children, if you respond to a person in need by acting insensitively, the end result will inevitably be that your own child, Canaan, will be a slave. Just like you, he will be unable to control himself. He will be a slave to his own passions and needs.
The story of the flood is not at all a myth. It is a narrative replete with endless fascinating insights, as is the entire Torah. All we need do is study and review it, and in it we shall find the secrets of all human life and human relations.
Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald
Rabbi Buchwald, Director, National Jewish Outreach Program, New York City.