On Shabbat/Simchat Torah, the Jewish people suffered its’ most devastating day since the Holocaust. It was not just the sheer numbers of people murdered-1,300 and counting- it was the fact that they were brutally tortured and butchered in a way that is reminiscent of the worst crimes ever committed against our people. The towns and kibbutzim surrounding Gaza were flooded with Hamas monsters seeking nothing but blood and destruction, leaving women, children, the elderly, and entire families dead, and towns and neighborhoods in ruin.
Noah too witnessed death and disaster of epic proportions when a massive flood destroyed the earth and all of humankind, other than himself and his immediate family. While the horrors of today stemmed from the unspeakable cruelty of Hamas towards innocent Israeli civilians, whereas the horrors of the flood stemmed from the hamas (See Genesis 6:11, 13)-the lawlessness and corruption- that the people inflicted upon one another, the results were similar. When Noah exited the ark he too must have been sickened by the sight of a desolate landscape, rotting corpses, and his home, town and everything he had ever known destroyed beyond recognition, and overwhelmed by the realization that there was nothing left to return to and nowhere to go.
How did Noah respond to the disaster and devastation of his time and what lessons can we perhaps glean from his response that may help us in our own efforts to recover from the trauma of today?
The Torah tells us “Noah, the tiller of the soil, was the first to plant a vineyard. He drank of the wine and became drunk and uncovered himself within his tent” (Genesis 9:19-20).
Despite the seemingly impossible task of rebuilding the world after the flood, Noah exhibited the strength and determination necessary to move forward and start anew. God, in the second account of creation (there are two accounts of creation), instructed humankind to “till the soil” (See Genesis 2:5 and 3:23) and so Noah who, in accordance with this divine mandate worked as a tiller of the soil before the flood, returned to the same occupation after the flood. Remarkably, however, Noah went even further. Not only was he committed to restoring the world to its’ previous order; he was determined to improve life on earth in a way that had never been known before. If his predecessors managed to obtain the bare necessities of life, such as bread, from the ground, Noah discovered the majestic grapevine and its ability to produce wine that “gladdens the heart of humankind” (Psalms 104:15). Perhaps Noah thought this would be a good way to restore joy to an utterly joyless postdiluvian existence.
Yet with each passing day and with the vivid memories of his beloved friends still fresh in his mind, his determination and resolve seem to have weakened. Aside from his immediate family, there was no one to embrace him and to provide the kind of support and encouragement needed to continue the monumental task of rebuilding the world in the wake of its ruin. His mental well-being and his willingness to persist in his efforts began to erode and he could no longer muster the strength and fortitude to go on. To make matters worse, although God promised never to inflict this kind of punishment again, God, according to this account (there are two accounts of the flood), never shared this promise with Noah: “The Lord smelled the pleasing odor, and the Lord said to Himself: Never again will I doom the earth because of man…” Thus, Noah could not help but wonder whether all the hard work necessary to rebuild the world was worth it. Why invest every ounce of energy you have left if there is no guarantee that tomorrow will be better than today?
At some point, Noah discovered, perhaps to his amazement, that wine not only gladdens the heart but that excessive drinking helps dull the senses, provides a convenient escape from life’s challenges and troubles, and allows people to retreat into their own worlds rather than boldly face the challenges ahead in the real world. And so, Noah drank until he become drunk and, from that point on, things began to spiral out of control: “He uncovered himself within his tent” along with all the negative results that ensued (See Genesis 9:21-27).
What is particularly interesting in this brief episode is that the text leaves the reader with the impression that the sequence of events occurred in rapid succession: After the flood, Noah planted a vineyard, then drank, became drunk and uncovered himself. The problem is that the period of time that it takes from planting a vineyard, to producing grapes and to cultivating wine, is years! By presenting the events in this way, the text seems to imply that Noah’s good intentions in working the land and planting a vineyard after the flood were quickly forgotten once drinking wine gave way to drunkenness and indecent exposure, much as the seven years of abundance in Egypt were quickly forgotten once the seven years of famine set in.
The response of the citizens of Israel and of Jews around the world, from the moment that the news of the vicious attack became clear, has been nothing short of incredible. All the bickering, tension and internal strife that had characterized life in Israel over the past nine months vanished almost instantaneously. Despite concerns, prior to the war, that many reservists will refuse to report to military duty, one hundred percent of reservists reported to duty after the onset of the war with many others flocking to join Israel’s war efforts. The WhatsApp groups that have been created to provide food, clothing, medical and military supplies, hospitality and money to soldiers and the tens of thousands of people whose lives were most affected are far too numerous to count. The question that everyone seems to be asking now is “what can I do to help?” As a society, we are as united as we have ever been and we are as determined to fight to protect this country as never before. In this sense, we are following in Noah’s footsteps immediately after the flood.
The question, however, is what will happen when this war continues for weeks and most likely months, as most military experts predict? Will we, unlike Noah, be able to maintain our resolve to continue in our war efforts even when it, inevitably, involves the loss of more life on our side, and will we succeed in convincing the world to continue its support for us even when civilian casualties begin to mount on the other? And when this the war is over, will we find a way to preserve our newfound solidarity so that we can work together to rebuild the communities that were destroyed, and help heal those whose lives were shattered? Will our leaders take responsibility for damaging the fabric of Israeli society and for eroding our military preparedness and will they step aside in favor of a new kind of leadership whose priority will be to bring us together as a people? And will we be able sustain all the goodness, the caring, the generosity, the kindred spirit and the love that are so vividly on display today, and create a new kind of culture in which we treat one another with dignity and mutual respect?
The answers to these questions will likely determine the future of the country that we have worked so hard to build and develop for the past 75 years. I hope we answer them wisely.
Rabbi Dr. David Harbater’s recently published book “In the Beginnings: Discovering the Two Worldviews Hidden within Genesis 1-11” is available on Amazon and at select bookstores.