Outside the Box, Thinking

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Okay, I cheated. “Teiva” in this week’s Torah portion may not mean “box.” “Teivah,” which does mean box in Hebrew, is also the name for the vessel in which Noah, his family and the animals survived the flood.

Yet it’s clear that Noah certainly felt boxed in. After landing on terra firma, he planted a vineyard, drank from its grapes and became intoxicated – perhaps, says the Midrash, all in one day.

And that is how Noah became the father of all those who ingest mood-altering substances.

I seem to remember a midrash in which Noah plaintively justified his actions with the verse from Psalm 104, “Wine gladdens the heart of man.”

Noah had worked hard to sustain the micro-world in the Ark. Perhaps his turning to wine was a futile effort to cushion the let-down he must have felt in the emptiness of his post-deluvian days.

Like Noah, we also have just completed a journey. We worked hard during our spiritual voyage through Ellul, the days of awe, and Sukkot. After the “high” of Simchat Torah, we began to feel ourselves being dragged back to the world’s storms and the world’s emptiness. It’s that feeling you get after a wonderful vacation when the landing gear slows down your jet for the final descent to the same old place – home.

Noah, I empathize with the mistaken logic you used when you stepped outside the box. You imagined that wine, something OUT THERE, was supposed to make you happy. “Tafalnu sheker,” “we have framed falsehoods,” I have put an enormous amount of energy into living with the false idea that some object or quest or person would make me happy.

If only I were a camp counselor – then I’d be happy. (That lasted one camp season.)

If only I were a therapist – then I’d be happy. (That lasted five months.)

Surely, if I earned more, I’d be happier than I am now.” (I’m still struggling with that one.)

If it’s any consolation to you, Noah, there’s now scientific evidence that people aren’t very skilled at predicting what will make them happy over the long run. The researcher Daniel Gilbert notes, ”You know, [there’s a song that says], ‘You can’t always get what you want.’ I don’t think that’s the problem. The problem is you can’t always know what you want.”*

So what are we poor confused humans to do?

The liturgical phrase “sab’einu mituvecha,” “satisfy us from your goodness,” comes to mind. Perhaps it does not mean “give us so much of your goodness that we will be satisfied,” but rather “give us the ability to be satisfied,
to be happy, with whatever goodness you provide to us.”

In other words, not more wine, but less whine.

Shabbat Shalom.

*“The Futile Pursuit of Happiness,” by John Gertner, New York Times, September 7, 2003.

Rabbi Michael Levy is the director of travel training at MTA New York City Transit. For many years, he has regularly contributed Divrei Torah to Lincoln Square Synagogue’s “Shabbat Echad” bulletin. Rabbi Levy, committed to the integration of Jews with disabilities into all aspects of Jewish life, is a board member of “Computer Sciences for the Blind,” and “Yad Hachazakah—Jewish Disability Empowerment Center.”

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.