This Week's Torah Portion: Noah ... Gets Drunk?

Dëvar Torah – Parashath Noach (Genesis VI, 9 – XI, 32)

Last week’s parasha dealt with the origin of the universe at large, culminating in the creation of Mankind and the account of the genesis of the diphysite human condition as we know it. This week, we learn of the origin of the Earth’s present geography through the agency of the cataclysmic event called the Mabbul. This is inadequately translated as the Biblical “Flood.” We also learn of the subsequent division of the human race by nation and language, their dispersal over the face of the globe, and of a major change in the human diet.

This last information was communicated to Noach and his sons shortly after they left the teiva, the vast wooden vessel in which they and the seed stock of animals which were to replenish the Earth had ridden out the catastrophe:

Kol remes asher hu chai lachem yihyeh lë’ochla këyereq ‘ésev nathatti lachem eth kol. Every mobile thing which lives will be food for you; like green plants I have given you everything. (IX, 3)

Rashi, echoing the Talmud (Sanhedrin 109b), explains the implication:

For I did not permit meat to the first man, but only green plants; but to you I have given everything like the green plants that I left to the first man.

But with this broadening of man’s menu comes an added responsibility, a mitzvah:

Ach basar bënafsho bëdamo lo thochélu. But meat with its life, with its blood, you will not eat (ibid., v. 4).

From this, the Talmud concludes (Sanhedrin 59a) that bënei Noach are prohibited from eating évar min hechai, a limb from a living creature. This is followed by a stern warning against murder (ibid., vv. 5-6).

The granting of this new dispensation is followed by the episode of Noach’s drunkenness. We are told that Noach’s first priority in agriculture was the planting of a vineyard (ibid., 20), and that as soon as wine could be made from the grapes, Noach drank it and became quite helplessly drunk, lolling naked in his tent. His son Cham reported Noach’s state to the other two brothers, Shém and Yefeth, who entered their father’s tent with eyes averted and covered him up. When Noach awoke from his stupor:

… and knew what his small son had done to him, he said, “Cursed is Këna‘an” (ibid., 24-25).

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 70b) concludes that Cham had done more than simply look at his father, but there is a dispute as to precisely what he had done. What is not in dispute is that it was Cham who did it. However, Cham was not Noach’s youngest son; we find the three brothers mentioned repeatedly together, and they are always in the same order: Shém, Cham, and Yefeth. Yefeth was Noach’s youngest son, and he had done nothing to harm or shame his father.

This fact prompts Rashi to interpret the phrase “his small son” to mean “the invalid, debased one,” i.e., figuratively small. But this is homiletics, not the simple meaning of the phrase, as the Even ‘Ezra points out. However, it is a well-known usage in Biblical Hebrew that grandsons are also called “sons,” and Këna‘an was Cham’s youngest son (X, 6 and Rashi on IX, 25). How, then, was Këna‘an involved in his father’s act?

The ‘Itturei Torah (a remarkable commentary written by Aharon Ya‘aqov Greenberg, deputy speaker of the Israeli Knesset in the 1950s and early 60s), offers an explanation in the name of the great scholar Rabbi Dr. Chayyim Heller. He cites Habakkuk II, 15:

Oy, who plies his fellow with drink, you add your wrath and make him drunk, in order to look at their nakedness.

He suggests that it was Këna‘an who was engaged in just such a ceremony as this, urging his grandfather to drink, deliberately anesthetizing him so that Cham could make his play. Noach was so helplessly inebriated that he may not even have been aware of Cham — but he remembered very clearly how he had got that way: “Cursed is Këna‘an.”

In my humble opinion, this also explains why the Torah is at such pains to remind us that Cham was Këna‘an’s father, stating it twice in proximity to this incident (vv. 18 and 22). Cham was the evil son, a throwback to the generation which had lately been destroyed, “the invalid, debased one,” as Rashi put it — and Këna‘an was the most depraved and evil of his progeny, truly Cham’s son.

The Zohar (I, 73a) describes them as follows:

The dross of the gold under the hammer, an awakening of the impure spirit of the primordial serpent … who brought curses upon the world; this is Këna‘an, who darkened the faces of the created ones … [It was] he who darkened the world.

It seems to me that it is not coincidental that the permission to eat meat and the drunken episode are juxtaposed. Meat and wine are similar halachically in that their kashruth is subject to more and tighter strictures than is that of other food items. There are many intricacies involved in the proper slaughter, examination, salting, etc., of kosher meat, as well as the ramifications of the prohibition of its consumption together with dairy products.

Similarly, kosher wine (unlike, say, bread) must be prepared entirely by Jewish hands; should an open bottle of wine which is not mëvuushal (“cooked”) be handled by a non-Jew, it is rendered non-kosher.

Meat and wine are likewise similar in that Torah literature reveals an ambivalent attitude towards them and those who consume them. On the one hand, they are disparaged. Thus, as we have already seen, the first men were not permitted to eat meat (Sanhedrin 109b); and elsewhere (Sota 5a) it is expounded that the word basar, “meat,” is composed of the initial letters of busha (“shame”), Shë’ol (“the grave”) and rima (“worm”).

Similarly, concerning wine we find Rabbi Mé’ir’s opinion that the fruit used to tempt the first man was the grape, “for nothing brings woe to a man more than wine” (Bërachoth 40a). Also: “Wine for evil-doers is a pleasure for them and their world, and bad for tzaddiqim and their world” (Sanhedrin 71b); and: “Wine is a mocker, strong drink wild, and whoever loses his senses in it will not grow wise” (Proverbs XX, 1).

On the other hand, we see that King David wrote: “Wine gladdens the heart of man” (Psalms CIV, 15), which the Rabbis echoed: “Bread nourishes but does not gladden; wine has both, it nourishes and gladdens” (Bërachoth 35b); as well as “there is no rejoicing without meat and wine” (Pësachim 109a).

Thus we find an ambivalence in the Torah’s attitude towards meat and wine which we do not find regarding, say, bread or vegetables. There is a negative aspect to them. In the case of meat, one can easily see that there is potential cruelty involved, since the animal must, after all, be slaughtered before its meat can be eaten. In the case of wine, the very relaxing and liberating effect of alcohol, taken too far, leads to drunkenness, lightheadedness, and the sort of behavior one regrets “the morning after.” Each engenders a potential danger to the character of the consumer of which he should be aware.

This, I believe, is the message that the Torah is trying to send by recording these two things together.

We are warned against holëluth — wanton, empty hedonism. Shëlomo haMelech, “King Solomon,” wrote: “Be not among the swillers of wine, the gorgers on flesh” Proverbs XIII, 20).

This does not mean that we must be ascetics; G-d forbid! The world and everything in it is very good, and is here for our use and enjoyment. But that enjoyment should be in the context of holy motives, a rejoicing which is a mitzva. Another Talmudic statement alludes to this when it pronounces: “Anyone who is not engaged in Torah is forbidden to eat the meat of animals and birds” (Pësachim 49b).

The preparation of meat for human consumption involves activities — killing, butchering — that can have a coarsening effect on the human soul. Therefore, the original permission was coupled with the prohibition of évar min hechai (an act of consummate cruelty) to counter this. This was followed by the reinforced admonition against human bloodshed to emphasize, as Rashi notes, that “even though I have permitted you the taking of animal life, your blood shall I seek from the shedder of that blood himself.”

In Noach’s drunkenness we have the cautionary tale par excéllence against drinking to excess. We must only use Ha-Shem’s blessings properly, lest they become curses.