The truth is, Noach is a pretty tragic character. When we first meet him, the Torah says, “Noach found favor in G-d’s eyes.” At the beginning of this week’s Torah reading we learn, “Noach was a righteous man; complete in his generation. Noach walked with G-d.” Woah. That’s big. I mean, I’m not exactly sure what walking with G-d means, but if someone said, “See that girl over there? She walks with Beyonce.” You would be like, “Woah!” So, it’s obviously a big deal.
But then there is the building of the teiva (ark), and the saving the animals, and the forced conscription into service on the teiva, and the witnessing the destruction of almost all living things. At first Noach is happy to be out and grateful to be saved. We have the whole episode of the promises and the rainbow. But then we get Bereishit 9:20, “And Noach, Ish ha’adamah, the Man of the Earth, began to plant a vineyard.” You don’t have to be a great and knowledgeable Torah scholar to notice that when we first meet Noach he is called “A man of righteousness” and now he is called “A man of the earth.” That’s sort of sad.
I mean, I get it. We can understand why the why the whole flood episode, and the feeding and care of the aardvarks, and the platypuses, and the rhinos induced a type of PTSD, and why he felt like he needed a drink. But something sad must have happened to force the change in his appellation. What forced this change?
Rashi and the Ramban would disagree on why, but they would agree that my question is a dumb question. Rashi would say that Noach is called, “A man of the earth” because now he is like the owner of the Earth. (It makes more sense in Hebrew. “Ish” can mean husband not just man. So he’s like the husband of the earth, or the boss of the earth. But don’t tell Allison that I said that Rashi says that husband is synonymous with “boss.”) Ramban would say that the phrase is better translated as “A man FROM Earth.” I mean, there were no cities yet. So it couldn’t say, Noach from Lakewood or Noach from Williamsburg. So, it just says Noach from earth. But either way, they would say that my question is dumb.
Okey dokey. Imma gonna ask it anyway. Is it possible for us to track down the fulcrum on which this change pivots? Why did Noach seemingly lose his title of “righteous” and becomes just an ordinary field worker?
After Noach and family leave the teiva and after they bring sacrifices, Bereishit 9:1 says, “And G-d blessed Noach and his sons and He said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the land.” And a bit later, 9:7, “But for you (pl.) be fruitful and multiply; teem on the earth and multiply on it.” A bit after that (9:18-19) we have, “The sons of Noach that came out from the teiva are Shem and Cham and Yafet . . . These three are the sons of Noach and from these three [the people] spread out across the land.” And then 9:20, “Noach, the man of the earth, began to plant a vineyard.” Hmmm. You know, that verse 9:28 says that Noach lived another 300 years after the flood. Regardless of whether you want to take a very strict, religious reading of the text or if you want to find some easier-on-the-current sensibilities-hard-to-justify-from-traditional-sources-modern-interpretation of the text, the point is that Noach lived after the mabul for a significant time. And he didn’t have any more children. The main thing that had to happen was repopulating and resettling the earth. In 9:1 he was blessed with the ability to have children, in 9:7 he was commanded to have children, and in 9:28 it’s clear he had the opportunity to have children. But he didn’t. Let’s speculate – why not?
You know, another way to translate the phrase “ish ha’adama” would be “a man of the earth.” That is, MADE of earth. Which forces us to remember that in fact, man was MADE of earth, and then G-d blew into him a living soul. Adam literally an ish ha’adama, until he was a human being with a soul. Somehow, Noach had turned off or tuned out that aspect of divinity and reverted from being a tzaddik to being just a man OF earth.
It seems to me that the observation that Noach negated the command to have more children, and the observation that Noach had somehow backed away from his full humanity to be only a man of earth, are connected. What that means is obviously open to interpretation, and I look forward to hearing yours. But today I’m thinking this: the divinity that G-d imbued in all human beings helps us to choose that which is right and good even when it is not easy or pleasurable in the short term. Part of what helps a person make those choices is the faith that it’s better for society or faith in his fellow man’s ability to reciprocate, or faith that the Creator will repay us for the effort. Inherent in the Divine Soul that was breathed into Adam is faith. And it seems like Noach lost faith. Maybe he lost faith in himself, maybe in his sons, maybe in G-d, but it could be that lack of faith is what caused him to want to withdraw from the work he had been blessed for and tasked with.
When Noach was able to look at a world of evil and have faith in the future he is called righteous. When he was in a world of only the righteous and could only see the potential for destruction, he is called a “man of earth.”
The message for us is just that simple. Cynicism, doubt, hopelessness, worry, and despair are all part of the human condition. But faith, and hope, and trust are what make us FULLY human.