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Dear Friends,

This week’s Torah portion is the familiar story of Noah and the flood. Most of the time we tend to focus on the beginning of the story. God is disgusted with the corruption of society and recognizes that the only solution is to start over. God calls to Noah and charges him with the responsibility to set the stage for the repopulation of the earth once the flood waters recede. Noah builds the ark as God commanded and brings animals, two or seven of each kind depending on which verses you read. Eventually the flood waters recede and God speaks to Noah saying,

“Come out of the ark, together with your wife, your sons, and your sons’ wives. Bring out with you every living thing of all flesh that is with you: birds, animals, and everything that creeps on earth; and let them swarm on the earth and be fertile and increase on earth.”

Noah is clearly grateful to have survived the destructive forces of the floodwater and builds an altar to express his gratitude to God.

But then the story takes an odd turn.

The Torah states:

Noah, the tiller of the soil, was the first to plant a vineyard. He drank of the wine and became drunk, and he uncovered himself within his tent.
Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father’s nakedness and told his two brothers outside. But Shem and Japheth took a cloth, placed it against both their backs and, walking backward, they covered their father’s nakedness; their faces were turned the other way, so that they did not see their father’s nakedness.

As I have frequently noted, one of the things I love about Torah study is that, while the text is canonized and therefore fixed, our life experience is constantly changing. As a result, each time we read a text, familiar as it might be, we see it through new eyes. That’s the meaning behind the statement from Pirke Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) which says, “Turn it over and over and over for all is contained within it.”

That is certainly the case with this scene toward the end of the Noah story. I’ve always found it a bit strange and wondered why it was included. But this year, as I see it through the lens of almost twenty months of pandemic lockdowns, it finally makes sense.

The main body of the text depicts Noah as a dispassionately obedient servant to God. God instructs him to build an ark and Noah does it. God instructs him to gather animals and he does that. Then, after the flood waters recede, Noah expresses gratitude to God. The text appears to depict Noah as unaffected by the devastation that had just taken place.

But how could he, and his family, have not been impacted by the knowledge that every other living thing on earth had been wiped out?

That is where this brief episode comes in.

Noah over-indulges on the wine from his vineyard and passes out.
His son Ham thinks it is funny to embarrass his father.
But Shem and Japheth, Noah’s other sons, retain their moral compass, walk into the room where Noah is passed out backwards so they do not add to his future embarrassment, and take steps to cover their father.

This episode shows that Noah and his family were not dispassionate. They were traumatized. And each displayed a different way people react to loss and pain.

Noah turns to substances and loses self-control. Ham loses respect for everyone and, in the process, doesn’t consider how his actions will affect others. Shem and Japheth channel their upset into showing kindness and respect for others.

Like Noah and his family, we are slowly emerging from the “arks” we entered in March 2020. And I know how grateful and excited we all are to be able to see one another without needing to look into a camera. But the toll this difficult time has taken on us is no less real than the emotional trauma Noah and his family endured. And that trauma doesn’t simply go away once we are finally allowed to leave our arks. The impact lingers and, unaddressed, comes out in myriad ways. The challenge placed before us by this sacred text is to consider how we respond to that trauma. Will we be self-destructive like Noah and Ham or will we be moved to become even more loving?

The Torah’s disdain for Noah and Ham’s behavior and subsequent blessing of Shem and Japheth makes clear the path Torah hopes we choose.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Daniel Cohen