Setting Limits: Good Judgment and Living in the World

Noach, the man of the earth, debased himself and planted a vineyard. He drank of the wine and became a drunk, and he uncovered himself within his tent. - Bereishit 9:20-21

Rabbi Chaim of Sanz once asked some of his chassidim, “What would you do if you found a wallet filled with money?” He added that, in addition to the money, the wallet would have the owner’s identification.

The first vowed, “I would return it!”

“Foolishness!” the rabbi exclaimed.

A second lowered his eyes. “I would keep it,” he said is a shamed whisper.


A third sighed. “I do not know what I would do but I would hope I would have the moral resolve to return it.”

The rabbi nodded. “Ah, this,” he said, “is a wise man.”

The truth is, none of us knows how we would behave when confronted with a moral dilemma. Look at Noach. He’d done everything God asked of him and, yet his prior, holy behavior did not prevent his ensuing demeaning behavior.

Noach was a tzadik. Righteous in his generation, he was a man who walked with God. He was the man chosen to be saved from a world God deemed “wicked and evil always,” the only man to be redeemed from a creation that had so disappointed God that He, “…reconsidered having made them.”

Our distress at reading about the depths to which man had fallen in the time of Noach is relieved only by the comforting words at the close parashat Bereishit, “But Noach found grace in the eyes of God.”

Parshat Noach opens with Noach being identified as a tzadik only to end with the image of him falling into a drunken stupor. Astonishing! Inconceivable! And yet, the arc of Noach’s experience is presented as it is precisely to impress upon us that it is not astonishing or inconceivable at all that a righteous man might be brought so low.

“Noach… debased himself and planted a vineyard. He drank of the wine and became a drunk, and he uncovered himself within his tent.” In this pasuk, we witness, step by step, his degrading descent.

  1. He made himself chulin – he profaned himself.
  2. He planted a vineyard.
  3. He drank from the wine.
  4. He became drunk.
  5. He uncovered himself within his tent.

A first-rate journalist could not have set the sequence more clearly or in a more damning fashion. But we are reading this is not a newspaper but in the Torah. And this is not generally the Torah’s way. So, why is Noach’s fall from tzadik to chulin delivered to us in this “Late Breaking News” fashion?

Rashi, in commenting on this pasuk, makes the point that Noach drank to the point of intoxication and vulgarity. Vayachel is the first step. “Vayachel” is directly related to “chulin”, which is the very opposite of Kedusha. Rashi says, “Asa atzmo chulin” – He debased himself. He planted a vineyard.

But, we ask, how can planting a vineyard contribute to one’s debasement? On its face, this could be considered a holy act. After all, wine, symbol of our joy, is the only beverage given its own bracha. We welcome the Sabbath with wine. We bless the bride and groom with wine. We celebrate our chagim and life cycle events with wine.

As Rabbi Gefen suggests in his essay, “Don’t Drink and Build”, in the face of near overwhelming sadness, we need to think about the way forward. “After the Holocaust, the survivors who emerged from the destruction of their homes, their families and their communities were in a similar predicament. Many wanted nothing more than to escape the pain they had endured. But many others understood that their primary responsibility at that moment in history was to rebuild what had been lost – and they lived to see their lives blessed with children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Day Schools, Yeshivot, and an array of Jewish institutions have been established. Vibrant Jewish communities have been created from the ground up.” He points to our own times, our own pain and suffering. In every generation, we must decide whether and how to rebuild.

Certainly, Noach was confronted with a similar dynamic. He had seen Creation destroyed. The heaviness, the sadness, the pain he must have felt! Now, how to go forward? He planted a vineyard. Perhaps he thought that wine, symbol of joy and blessing, was the way to start. But, as we learn in this painful, step by step recounting, for Noach planting a vineyard proved not to be a way to “build up” but rather a way to be “brought low.”

And it is in this being “brought low” that the Torah’s step by step reportage is so powerful.

To plant a vineyard can – and should be – a blessing. Drinking the produce of the vineyard, the wine, even to excess on occasion (think Purim!) can be a blessing. But without the good judgment, the parameters, the limits of knowing when it is acceptable – that is, without knowing when enough is enough – the wine no longer speaks to our joy but to our darker impulses.

Without limits, the wine that brings us joy unmasks rage and awfulness. Without limits, wine can turn a thoughtful man into one who lashes out uncontrollably. Without limits, we are, by definition, without control.

Without limits, even the righteous, even Noach, will be brought down and degraded. And that, ultimately, is the lesson of the parasha’s ending. Know when enough is enough! Know the limits. Anticipate the need for them (who knows when he will be called upon to make a moral choice?) and pray for the strength and decency to do the right thing.

Of course, this is true not just in matters of wine but in all facets of life. Parents need to know when to stop haranguing their children. Continuing to harp on the same point again and again and again will never lead to positive results but only to vulgarities and desecration. So, too husbands and wives must not insist on pushing the same issue incessantly and repeatedly. Likewise, teachers and rebbes must not hammer home the same criticism over and over until students are forced to be uncovered “within his tent.”

Without limits, there is no decency and there is no shame.

How could it be otherwise? When one does not know when to stop, when one has no limits, there can only be desecration.

It was true for Noah. It is true in our shuls and in our homes. Limits keep us safe. Limits keep us holy.