Galvanizing Gratitude

 Shiur provided courtesy of

Summary by Channie Koplowitz Stein

            The central motif of Parshat Noach is the flood that annihilated all humanity and indeed all the earth. Following this devastation, Noach and his family, the only human survivors of the deluge, emerge from the ark to witness the destruction and obliteration of all they knew. How would this experience affect them, and particularly, Noach? This is the question that occupies much of the ensuing verses and the commentary that accompanies them.

The Torah records that Noach and his three sons, Shem, Ham and Yaphet left the ark, and that the entire world would spread out from these survivors. Then the Torah records: "Then Noach, the man of the earth, vayochel/ debased himself/made himself mundane and planted a vineyard. He drank of the wine and became drunk, and he uncovered himself within the tent." Noach, who had earlier been called a tzadik, a righteous man, and one who found favor in God's eyes is now called a man of the earth. How has he changed to warrant this new description? Why has he changed? Although most commentators interpret this as a negative change, can it at all be interpreted in a positive way? These are the questions that we will deal with in this shiur.

Rav Wolbe z”l z”l notes that for a full year Noach lived in the spiritual cocoon of the ark, selflessly working to sustain what would become the new world. When he finally left the ark, he faced the challenge of what to do now, in the real world, outside the spiritual bubble. This is a challenge we as Jews face, although to a lesser degree, at the close of every Shabbos and especially at the end of Yom Kippur. It is important to perpetuate the spiritual high of the day we just experienced. That is why our rabbis have instituted the custom of beginning the building of one's sukkah on Motzoai Yom Kippur. This night, continues Rav Wolbe z”l, can be compared to the reentry of a space craft into the earth's atmosphere. The reentry from the ethereal atmosphere to the earthly is the most dangerous part of the entire mission, and the slightest error can spell doom. The key to maintaining the feeling of closeness to Hashem is to "stretch" the spirituality of that time into the present. How did Noach's actions create, or fail to create, a proper paradigm for us?

Rashi comments that Noach should have planted something else instead of a vineyard. On this idea, the Tov Hapeninim expounds that wine is a luxury. Noach should first have planted something of necessity, like wheat. Similarly, when we want to sustain our spiritual high, we should also start with the simple necessities of spirituality, like imbuing more focus on our prayers, before we take upon ourselves more difficult stringencies.

The Ner Uziel views the planting of the vineyard as something more insidious than a mere luxury. He notes that a nazir who, sensing the lure of corporeality, distances himself from physicality by eschewing certain of its aspects, most prominently, the consumption of grapes and of wine. Since one can lose oneself in wine, wine is the symbol of physicality. The Ner Uziel posits that Noach, after seeing such devastation, chose to immerse himself in wine, to forget, to leave the spiritual world and wallow in the physical.

At the close of Yom Kippur, having been involved in spirituality not only for the last ten days, and now at the close of Sukkot, for more than two months, since the fifteenth of Av, are we also feeling so overwhelmed that we can no longer keep up with spiritual demands? Are we also thinking we've had enough already?

Rabbi Schorr in Halekach Vehalebuv points out that man is called Adam, offering two different sources that present Man from two contradictory perspectives. The first source ties Adam to the earth, to the adamah from which he was formed. But Adam also has a spiritual soul which allows him to elevate himself so that he resembles God, as the verse in Isaiah reads, "Adameh loElyon/I will liken myself to the Most High." The two concepts do not coexist easily, but both are equally created by God. It is man's mission to have his spiritual aspect dominate and control his physical aspect.

Our lives are constantly challenged by this duality. If we close our eyes and lose focus for even a moment, writes Rabbi Yehudah Chasman z”l in Ohr Yahel, we may miss the most important point and run the risk of falling, both physically and spiritually. Noach's original intention in planting the vineyard was positive. He wanted to bring Hashem libation offerings in gratitude for being saved from the flood. But Noach lost his focus, drank too much, and used the wine for personal pleasure. When the physical became his focus, this tzadik fell from that exalted position and became a coarse, earthy man.

This is often the case when a crisis has passed. Rabbi Wachtfogel z”l notes that for 120 years Noach stood firm in his spiritual belief. He withstood the mocking of his peers as he faithfully built the ark as Hashem had commanded. But now, after the flood, Adam let his guard down and he fell prey to his physical side. If that great man, Noach could fall so low from a temporary lax, writes Rabbi Shach z”l, how much more careful must we be to maintain our spiritual focus. Now that the high powered months of Elul and Tishrei are over, it is easy for us to fall back into old patterns, to take our focus off our spiritual side, and be lured again by Satan. We must always be vigilant and think before we act, and assess if our intended action is the best way of achieving our desired result.

In an interesting side note that brings added depth to our story, Rabbi Goldwicht z”l asks where the sapling for the vineyard came from. He notes that the word vayitah/and he planted appears three times in the Torah. First, when Hashem planted a garden in Eden, second, here when Noach planted the vineyard, and finally when Avraham planted a tree under which he could entertain his guests. Rabbi Goldwicht z”l quotes the Midrash that notes,  that the two later planting all came from the first, from Gan Eden itself. Coming from such lofty beginnings, one would expect Noach's vineyard to be imbued with tremendous spiritual properties. What went wrong?

The problem, continues Rabbi Goldwicht z”l, was that this planting was Noach's first act upon exiting the ark. As such, it would set the tone for all that followed in this new world, just as the first step in any new endeavor sets the precedent for all that follows. In that momentary overindulgence in physical pleasure that led to his drunken state, Adam ruined his intention of recreating Eden and set the tone for a world that would be overly consumed with the corporeal and the mundane. As we are now entering a new world with the rebirth of the world on Rosh Hashanah, we must be careful as to how we begin as well, how we focus our attention on our tefillot and on our mitzvah observance, and not be drawn away into the purely physical pleasures of existence.

Continuing this theme, Rabbi Scheinerman in Ohel Moshe writes that what you do and what materials you use at the beginning of a project will affect the entire project. When planting a tree, for example, find a sapling from a tree that produced excellent fruit, not a tree with rotten fruit. When erecting a building, pour the foundation from the sturdiest materials, or else the entire structure might collapse. This was the time for Noach to pull himself together and begin rebuilding the world, not indulge in self pity at the destruction he witnessed and fall into a drunken stupor.

Our previous generation witnessed the destruction of its own world during the Holocaust. The Rebbe of Kovno z”l bore witness to the reaction of the Klausenberger Rebbe z”l when word of the imminent arrival of Allied troops to the concentration camps would bring about their liberation. The Klausenberger Rebbe z”l, who himself had lost his entire family, immediately set his eyes on rebuilding Klal Yisroel. He understood that many couples would now want to marry and begin rebuilding families. He wanted them to be able to begin their married lives according to Jewish law. Immediately, he turned to the Kovno Rebbe z”l (and I imagine to others) and with their bare hands started digging and forming a kosher mikveh in that "killing valley" so that many could marry and begin rebuilding. That's why Reb Simcha Wasserman z”l protested so loudly against those who devoted millions of dollars into building memorials to the past instead of devoting those funds to building the future. People fell into the trap Noach himself fell into. The initial impetus after personal or national destruction must be on rebuilding. Memorials can come later.

While we all live in a universal world, each of us also lives in our personal world, writes Letitcha Elyon. Our communal obligation, according to the Ramchal, is Torah and mitzvoth. But we also have an obligation to make contributions in our personal world. Noach, during his lifetime, lived in three distinct worlds. For almost 500 years he lived in the antediluvian world. Then he lived in the microcosmic world of the ark. When he emerged from the ark, he lived in the postdiluvian world. Noach needed to change his mission in each of these worlds, but he failed in his mission to build a more spiritual world in the last one. He failed to recognize that that world had different circumstances than the previous worlds, and required a different contribution. Similarly, we must approach each of our circumstances, each of our worlds, and make our decisions appropriately. With the conclusion of our yomim tovim, we are not in the same world as we were during the month of Tishrei, and we must approach our lives with a new mindset.

Perhaps we can approach Noach's actions from a different perspective. Perhaps his mindset was indeed to rebuild. According to Rabbi Yosef Nechemiah Kornitzer, Noach understood that he was saved not strictly for himself but for the future world. He also knew that Bnei Yisroel would be compared to a vine, prompting him to plant the vine symbolically. The Shvilei Pinchas develops this idea more fully. When Noach exited the ark, he wanted to be the progenitor of Bnei Yisroel and that his three sons would be the patriarchs. They would represent the foundation of the new world. In the original creation, the Torah states before there was not any siach hasadeh/trees of the field... Hashem did not bring rain and there was no man to work the soil. Noach interpreted this to mean that the world could not exist before Siya"Ch, before Shem, Yaphet and Cham who would become the threefold foundation of the world. Although Noach is connected to the Patriarchs through Shem, Noach miscalculated, for this was neither the right time nor he the right man. Just as new vines grow on old vines, so does Bnei Yisroel flourish through the merit of their Patriarchs and the interventional prayers of the Patriarchs and our great rabbis. But while Avraham Avinu prayed for others, hoping to save the people of Sodom, Noach did not pray for the people of his generation. How could Bnei Yisroel rely on him to pray for them? As Rabbi Meislish notes, it was only when Noach and his family saw the fury of Hashem raging in the waters around them that they began praying, but it was too little too late. A leader needs to be able to daven for his generation.

Noach's miscalculation can be compared to Adam's error in judgment. Adam had received one simple command from Hashem, not to eat of the tree in the garden. According to Rabbi Tatz in Worldmask, Adam felt complying with this one command was not challenging enough for him to prove his devotion to Hashem. He felt if he could bring his world down to a more physical existence where he would be constantly tempted and yet would resist, he would have a greater opportunity to draw closer to Hashem.

Rabbi Eisenberger develops this idea more fully in Mesilot Bilvovom. Adam indeed was trying to reach a higher spiritual level through his sin. Nevertheless, he disobeyed Hashem's direct command. According to several commentators, the fruit he sinned with was the fruit of the vine, the grape. Noach, in his newly created world, was trying to rectify the sin of Adam. He even stripped and remained naked in his tent to copy the condition of Adam. However, once you partake of the fruit, you put physical pleasure before serving Hashem. Noach's attempt was doomed to failure.

Had Noach planted one vine and thus symbolically tried to rectify Adam's sin, perhaps he could have succeeded. But he planted an entire vineyard, setting himself up for failure as he drank the wine for personal pleasure and became drunk, rolling naked in his tent.

Noach saw that the grape was different from other fruit. With other fruit, one can easily peel away the outer covering and access the important "meat". With the grape, it is difficult to separate the outer peel from the inner essence. Similarly, man is composed of his outer body which houses his inner essence, his soul. But the two cannot be separated. As human beings, and especially as Jews, we are meant to elevate the corporeal body, the physical world, to its holy, spiritual purpose. In so doing, we must not slip and lower the spiritual to the level of the mundane. Simple examples include bar mitzvah celebrations where the "bar/party" becomes primary to the mitzvah, or weddings where the details of food, photography and venue are so elaborate that they overshadow the holy aspect of the ceremony and the union of two individuals in marriage. These missteps are especially dangerous since they may take our focus away from the spiritual essence of the ceremonies which signify the beginning of new lives, either for a boy who is now entering manhood or for a young couple starting their new family.

Whether we are beginning a new year or entering a new stage of life, let our focus remain true to the mission Hashem has entrusted to us. May Hashem help us succeed this year and in all our endeavors.