By Rabbi Avraham
Fischer. A publication of the Orthodox Union in cooperation with the Seymour
J. Abrams Orthodox Union Jerusalem World Center
October 20, 2001
As these lines are being written, the world is still reeling from the horrific terror attacks in the United States. It is fervently wished that, by the time you read these lines, there will have been no more tragedies.
But, how can we heal after tragedy? How can life continue? What can we learn from our Torah regarding life after cataclysm?
Noach and his family survived the destruction of the world, and they are commanded and blessed to rebuild it, which they begin to do. But all we know of Noach's remaining 350 years is one incident:
And Noach began (VAYACHEL) [he was the first who] became a master of the earth (ISH ADAMAH), and he planted a vineyard. And he drank from the wine and he became drunk, and he uncovered himself within his tent (Bereishit 9:20-21).
In the ensuing verses, Noach is discovered in his shameful state by his children, who enter the tent backwards to cover him. When he awakens from his drunkenness, he speaks (for the first and only time recorded in the Torah!), cursing his grandson Canaan and blessing Hashem and his sons Shem and Yefet.
VAYACHEL: While starting a new life, Noach also acts in a way that lowers and debases him (similar to CHOL, mundane). This man, who was spared the annihilation of mankind, who was earlier called ISH TZADDIK, a righteous man (6:9), is now lowered to the level of the earth, ISH ADAMAH! And, while agriculture might have been a sensible profession to undertake in a world that had been stripped of all life, says Rashi, it would have been better if Noach had planted grain first before planting grapes.
What kind of role model is this, who is silent throughout the Flood, yet curses his grandson?
The Midrash (Sifrei Haazinu 47) tells how, when the flood rains began and Noach began to bring his family into the ark, the people tried to destroy it, so that Hashem had to bring Noach's family in and shut out the others. What must have followed then can only be imagined: the pounding of the rain mixed with the clawing of the people trying to get in, hysterical cries and, eventually, a silence to mock Noach's own wordlessness. At this point, says the Midrash, Noach began to pray for mercy, but Hashem told him it was too late.
It was at this horrible moment that Noach realized he was a survivor.
Karl Jaspers writes ("The Question of German Guilt"):
If [a catastrophe] happens and if I was there, and if I survive where the other is killed, I know from a voice within myself: I am guilty of being still alive.
And Noach must have begun to feel the anguish of being a survivor.
Noach's survival was not mere chance; it was the direct result of his righteousness that Hashem spared him. Still, Noach did not succeed in improving the world. R. Moshe Alshech (1508-1600) argues that Hashem chose the ark as the method of rescue as a criticism of Noach's way of conducting himself: throughout his life, Noach had shut himself up in an "ark," a separate world of his own making. He sealed himself off from the outside world, and although this was the key to his moral survival, it was also the key to his moral limitations.
At some point, Noach must have realized this, and his guilt got the better of him. Perhaps this might explain Noach's desire for wine. This is the suggestion of
Abravanel (Don Yitzchak Abravanel, 1437-1508) - himself a survivor of the expulsion from Spain in 1492 - who writes:
Perhaps when he was disgusted with his life because of the waters of the Flood, he sought to make wine to drink of it, so that he would no longer drink water, nor would he see it ever again.
The man who survived the Flood never wished to touch a drop of water again. Noach wanted to forget, to numb himself to the pangs of guilt, to fend off the awful torrent of memory and self-criticism. Consequently, he sunk himself deeply into the work of the earth, eventually lashing out in rage.
This need not be the only way we survive tragedy. There is also the model set by Avraham. "Noach," writes Prof. Nechamah Leibowitz, "was singled out for survival, Avraham for a mission."
Avraham, too, was witness to destruction, that of Sodom and Amorah.
However, Avraham tried to avert that disaster, arguing with Hashem to spare the cities if righteous people could be found within them. And when the cities were annihilated, Avraham moved to the Negev because, as
Rashi points out, When he saw that the cities were destroyed and wayfarers ceased coming, he withdrew from there.
Avraham's response to tragedy was to seek out new opportunities for hospitality.
In the aftermath of our tragedies, we can choose one of two paths: that of Noach, to withdraw into despair and gnawing guilt, or that of Avraham, to rebuild a destroyed world to spread Hashem's goodness.
Our choice should be to follow the path of Avraham.