While this parsha includes the destruction of the world, the formation of human languages, and the initiation of Abraham’s journey, our Mussar lesson will look at a small episode of drunkenness. But as we will see, a few drinks can split brothers and bring nations to war. What does intoxication take from us?
Noach (9:20-25) (Robert Alter translation)
And Noah, a man of the soil, was the first to plant a vineyard. And he drank of the wine and became drunk, and exposed himself within his tent. And Ham the father of Canaan saw his father’s nakedness and told his two brothers outside. And Shem and Japheth took a cloak and put it over both their shoulders and walked backward and covered their father’s nakedness, their faces turned backward so they did not see their father’s nakedness. And Noah woke from his wine and he saw what his youngest son had done to him. [And he curses Ham’s descendants and blesses Shem and Japheth.]
Henach Leibowitz, Majesty of Man
[Noah’s] first action was the planting of a grapevine. Soon after, he drank of its wine and became intoxicated. This led to a tragic situation that culminated in the cursing of his grandson, Canaan.
Since wine is not a staple, for food or nourishment, but rather a means to enjoyment and pleasure, it should not have had first priority in the rebuilding of the world. … Planting a grapevine is essential for the service of Hashem, but since it connotes pleasure and not necessity, it should not have been the first step in Noach’s plan for the rebirth of the world. This was Noach’s slight indiscretion that ultimately led to so much calamity for himself and his descendants.
We see the vast importance of every single action. No deed we do is isolated; each spurs a chain reaction of events. Even a slight impropriety can lead to a tremendous downfall. We must try to foresee problems that may later arise and be aware of the possible ends that our beginnings may eventually cause. In a positive light, the reciprocal of this lesson is also true. One small good action can bring one to great spiritual heights. If we appreciate the significance of all our actions, we can elevate ourselves to the greatest heights.
There are many monumental events in this parsha with ethical lessons, but Rabbi Leibowitz picks this one to focus on. Mussar is often focused on the family setting, because this is the common and daily field we are tested on.
Rabbi Leibowitz suggests that Noah’s grape growing may have had good motives. Wine is used for several mitzvot. Perhaps Noah was preparing wine to say a bracha? Nevertheless, prioritizing making wine was inappropriate when there was no food! Thinking of Rabbi Leibowitz’s audience, what might he be cautioning against?
In the context of the story, Noah becomes drunk, rather than drinking a little sip for a bracha. Are there reasons why even a good, blameless man, might have gotten drunk? (In Darren Aronofsky’s film Noah, Noah is torn by guilt and loss over the destruction of the world.)
The word “drunkenness” can be a metaphor for bad behavior other than literal alcohol intoxication – “drunk with power,” for example. What kind of behaviors does “drunkenness” imply? If alcohol is a depressant, what is it depressing?
Rabbi Wolbe, who is also concerned with this episode, says that there are a whole range of extreme traits that separate us from God, like alcohol intoxication. He mentions people, “drunk with honor/pride”. Anger also separates us from God. What do you think he means by saying that extreme honor or anger separate us from God, or are like intoxication?
After someone is drunk, or has acted with anger, they may feel shame about their actions. They may feel naked in the sense that the alcohol or strong emotions have exposed some of their inner feelings. When someone is shamed, what are the different ways of responding to their feelings of shame? How does Ham act differently from Shem and Japheth?
While the Torah text is ambiguous, “seeing nakedness” can have a sexual connotation in biblical language. Rabbinic midrash does pursue the idea that Ham violated Noah, and other non-Jewish ancient Near East myths include situations of a son castrating or violating his father. Drunkenness does create vulnerability. How do Shem and Japheth handle Noah’s vulnerability?
An important Mussar trait is kavod – honoring others and ourselves – protecting a person’s dignity. Threats to kavod can often trigger anger and other negative emotions. Developing kavod towards others is also linked to gratitude and generosity.
When Rabbi Leibowitz analyzes this episode, he sees a small indiscretion (planting a vineyard before food), which possibly had a good motive, leading to a chain of events resulting in a father cursing his son. He asks us to be sensitive to the consequences of our actions, both negative and positive. Do you have examples in your life of a small action having outsized consequences?
There is a Mussar trait, called boshet, which is sometimes translated as shame, but more appropriately means sensitivity to consequences. Rabbi Avi Fertig, quotes the great Medieval Jewish sage Ibn Gabriol:
A wise person was asked, “What is the seichel [literally, intellect]?” He
answered, “Boshet.” They asked him, “and what is boshet?” he replied,
Every wise individual knows that it is the seichel that differentiates human
from beast, allowing him to rule his nature and prevent his passions from
controlling his life. It is that which allows a person to achieve the goal of
wisdom and truth of all matters, including humbling oneself before the
Using your own words, how might you describe “boshet”?
By the way, in traditional Jewish thought (at least as taught to me by my grandparents), getting drunk takes away your seichel.