Mordechai Silverstein
Mordechai Silverstein

What It Takes to Make a World

As a result of the great flood, Noah and his family were left in the role of becoming the new “Adam and Hava” – the progenitors of the world. Upon exiting the ark, Noah offered up a sacrificial offering to God and, in turn, God established an eternal covenant with Noah never to destroy the world again. He then blesses Noah and charges him with an awesome responsibility: “…As for you, be fruitful and multiply, swarm through the earth, and increase on it.” (Genesis 9:7) The next thing we hear about Noah is how he goes about establishing the new world order: “Noah, the tiller of soil, was the first (vayahal) to plant a vineyard. He drank of the wine and became drunk, and he uncovered himself within the tent…” (Genesis 9:20…)

The Sages were taken aback by Noah’s actions. One midrash focused on the word “vayahal” in this sentence to express its dissatisfaction with Noah’s behavior. “Vayahal, in contexts, means “to begin” or “to initiate” but a similar word “Halal” means “to profane”, inspiring the following interpretation: “’Noah, the tiller of soil, profaned…’ – He (Noah) became profaned and the world was made profane. How? ‘He planted a vineyard.’ Shouldn’t he have planted something to repair the world? Perhaps, a shoot of a fig tree, or an olive sapling? Instead, he planted a vineyard.” (Bereishit Rabbah 36:3)

This midrash saw in Noah’s actions irresponsible behavior which ultimately led him in his drunkenness to impropriety and an inauspicious second beginning for the world. In one of his famous stories, “The Loss of the Princess’, Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav, following the lead of the Noah story, has the story’s hero, the viceroy, search for the lost princess (the Shekhina – God’s feminine aspect), who has been exiled from the castle. In one episode of the story, the viceroy happens upon the princess who tells him that in order to save her, he must refrain from wine for a year in order to retrieve her and restore her to the palace (tikkun olam – restore the world). On the very last day, the viceroy succumbs to the temptation to drink wine and fails at his mission. (See Sipporei Maasiyot, Ch. 2) This vignette points up the need for a certain kind of discipline necessary for the maintenance of the cosmic order and on a more mundane level, establishing God’s world on earth.

One has a sense that in our day, for many, discipline and priorities have given way to laisse fair behavior or, as the rabbis might observe, an attitude of “let din v’ let Dayan – there is no judgment nor Judge”. There is a price for irresponsible and intemperate behavior. This Noah story comes to remind us that all that is good comes with a level of responsibility and discipline. If we forget this even blessings can become curses.

About the Author
Mordechai Silverstein is a teacher of Torah who has lived in Jerusalem for over 30 years. He specializes in helping people build personalized Torah study programs.
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