Parashat Noach | November 5, 2016
Earlier this morning, our bat mitzvah gave us a great summary and analysis of the Noah story – the dramatic flood, Noah’s sending out the birds, and finally finding dry land. And of course, the conclusion of the story, God setting a Rainbow in the sky as a sign that this will never happen again. Indeed we read God’s promise, “When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures, all flesh that is on Earth. That… shall be the sign of the covenant that I have established between Me and all flesh that is on earth” (Gen 9:16-17). A beautiful happy ending.
But what if I told you, that’s not the end of the story. What if there are a few more verses that we leave out of most story books.
So, what happens next? The Torah continues, “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, (one of Noah’s three sons), saw his father’s nakedness and told his two brothers outside” (Gen 9:20-22). In short, Noah gets out of the ark, plants a vineyard, makes wine, gets drunk, and takes off all his clothes. His son sees this and rushes to tell his brothers, “you guys gotta see this!” Not exactly the same happy ending we like to think about.
I’m curious, how many people knew this was part of the Noah story and how many are hearing it for the first time? Why do we think this is, that so many of us don’t know this part? The story we all know is that Noah was a good person, he was the only good person in fact, the Torah even tells us that. So for anything that goes against what we already intrinsically know, we tend to look the other way on. And even if we know about it, we try to explain it away. In our own Etz Hayim Humash there are many suggestions of this. One comment reads, “overwhelmed by the task of rebuilding a destroyed world, finding himself virtually alone and friendless in a nearly empty world, or perhaps burned by a sense of guilt at having survived when so many others perished, Noah turns to drink.” Another reads, “no blame attaches to Noah for his drunkenness, because he was unaware of the intoxicating effects of his discovery.” Ok, I see where the comments are coming from. They are trying to rationalize and explain Noah’s behavior, but they also seem like a bit of a stretch. Why is it so hard for us to just say that Noah did something stupid and screwed up.
We see this happen in so many areas of our lives – letting what we already know or think color the rest of our viewpoints. We see this in sports – In 2007, when Michael Vick was banned from the NFL and sent to prison for his involvement in dog fighting, I was convinced he was an awful example and should never be allowed to play football again. When he led the Eagles to the playoffs three years later, I was suddenly much more forgiving. We see this in politics – When we talk about the presidency of John F. Kennedy, his affairs and extramarital relationships seem like a footnote, a way of giving this great President some more depth of character. Similarly, the scandals surrounding Bill Clinton have a way of fading to the background when we remember the strong economy of his term and his special efforts to create peace in Israel.
Our tradition gives us another prime example of this in King David. We sing David Melech Yisrael from a young age, but we’re singing about a person who took another man’s wife, and had him killed so that he could marry her. But, the rabbis knew that the family line that followed David would one day bring us the Mashiah. So what did they do? They helped make this incident with Batsheva become just a footnote in his life.
In one of my all time favorite texts, the rabbis bring a midrash, a rabbinic story, about this incident. According to them, David was on the roof of his palace minding his business, when an interesting looking bird appeared on another roof. David, being a bit of a hunter, shot an arrow at the bird, but at the last second it flew away. The arrow instead hit a privacy screen that broke, revealing Batsheva bathing behind it. It wasn’t David’s fault, he was just going after the bird. Even after the narrative, they present argument after argument trying to show David in a better light. (Sanhedrin 107a-b) They simply cannot admit David made a mistake. There has to be a justification. They won’t say, “David was a great king, but he sure screwed up that time.”
There are many more examples of this throughout the Book of Genesis that we will read over the coming weeks – of our ancestors doing things they shouldn’t have, and us finding reasons to justify them. Abraham comes within a moment of killing his son – he was just doing what God told him to. Jacob takes advantage of his brother in a weak moment to steal his birthright – well Jacob should have been born first anyway, Esav just snuck his way out. Genesis is full of people who do things we wish they hadn’t, and we’re ok with it, just explaining them away.
The flip side of this occurs just as frequently and is just as bad when we refuse to acknowledge a person’s positive attributes and contributions because of their faults. Living here in Jacksonville, a city named for President Andrew Jackson, we see this first hand. Historians and scholars tend to view Jackson as one of our Top-10 presidents. But earlier this year, when Treasury Secretary Jack Lew announced his plans to replace Jackson’s portrait on the $20 bill, many people rejoiced, celebrating the news that a president who has been a slave owner, and whose policies were responsible for the Trail of Tears, the forced removal of many Native American Indians from the Southeast, had his place in the spotlight taken away.
To be clear, Harriet Tubman, who will replace Jackson on the $20 bill, is also a tremendous historical figure who should be recognized for her major accomplishments and the many lives she saved. But should we no longer acknowledge the positive contributions of Jackson because of his mistakes?
This is debated with many of our historical figures. George Washington was a slave owner. Thomas Jefferson, while writing the words “All men are created equal,” himself owned one of the largest plantations in Virginia. For many, this tarnishes their legacy as founding fathers. Earlier this year, at Princeton University, many students protested the name of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs because of his own troubled record on racial issues. The Board of Trustees voted to keep the name on the school, but the message from the students was heard across the country – we are willing to let one part of a person define how we look at their entire being.
In these cases, the result is different, but I’ll suggest the reason is the same. We struggle to see people as complete individuals. Whether that means looking the other way on someone’s faults, or focusing solely on those faults, in either case, we are not seeing the forest through the trees. Why can’t we simply say our leaders are complex, real people, and just like us, they sometimes make mistakes.
Admittedly, there are some actions that can fall outside the realm of acceptability and forever change how we look at someone. And yes, any action an individual takes, whether good or bad, may forever become a part of their legacy. However, every person is a complex individual, with both positive and negative traits. We owe it to them, and to ourselves, to look at the whole picture. There’s nothing wrong with saying George Washington founded our country, but I wish he hadn’t owned slaves. I feel comfortable saying JFK was a great president, but he should have treated the women in his life much better.
This Tuesday is election day, and at long last, this divisive and historic election will reach its conclusion. I think it is safe to say that neither major candidate is perfect and that each possesses admirable and deplorable traits. If we watch the news, however, we are likely to only hear about the negatives, the scandals. Yes, this is a major election that in many ways will shape the world for the next four years, but don’t we also owe it to to our country to look at the candidates’ whole pictures too? Not just to think “he said this,” or “she said that,” but to actually look at who they are and what they stand for. The decision you make is up to you, but when you vote, and please, please, be sure to vote (I’ll even go so far as to say it’s an obligation for all of us), when you do, don’t just remember the scandals. Remember what each candidate stands for and what they represent. Don’t look only at the negative, but also don’t ignore the negative. See the big picture, see the forest through the trees.
I have a confession to make. When I shared the “real” ending of the Noah story earlier, I actually didn’t get to the very end. Remember, Noah is drunk and naked in his tent, when one son sees him. He rushes to tell his two brothers and what happens? “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. (Gen 9:22-23) They cover up their father, and are careful to look away. Not to pretend this never happened, but to allow their father to keep his dignity and to retain his image. They acknowledge his mistake, his shame, but they also do what they can to see the big picture, to always remember that this is their father and to treat him with respect.
No, the story of Noah doesn’t have the storybook ending of rainbows we imagine, but this ending is in many ways even more important. It reminds us to look at the whole picture, to see both the good and the bad in people around us and in our leaders. That may not be as pretty as a rainbow, but I still think it’s a happy ending.