Most people, of any age, in Jewish and Christian cultures can recite the basics of the Noah story: God regrets how corrupt humanity has gotten and decides to destroy the entire earth with a flood. But because of Noah’s righteousness, God chooses to save Noah his family, and enough animals to start life afresh. God then promises never to enact such a flood again.
What happens to Noah next, though, is sad and strange, and there’s a reason it gets left out of the picture-book version of the story: He plants a vineyard for wine (who wouldn’t after experiencing such an ordeal?), and then he gets drunk and naked and puts a curse on one of his sons. (Genesis 9:20-25)
The midrash takes a strong stance against Noah’s actions after he left the ark: “He was disgraced and made debased. Why? ‘To plant a vineyard.’Should he not have planted something else to repair the world, a tree sapling or a tree cutting?” (Bereishit Rabbah 36:3).
But the very first verse of the parshah tells us, “Noah was a righteous man; he was blameless in his age; Noah walked with God.” (Genesis 6:9) So how does one go from being one of the only people in the world considered worth saving — and the one made responsible for saving the world — to, soon after he steps off the ark, a “disgraced” transgressor? The text of Genesis doesn’t give us a satisfying answer, but Jewish tradition tells us a whole lot about human needs and behavior that we can use to make sense of Noah’s peculiar downturn.
Think about what Noah had just witnessed: The entire earth — and almost all of its people, plants, and animals — were destroyed by drowning. How would you feel exiting the ark and walking into an utterly obliterated world?
The American Psychological Association defines “trauma” as “any disturbing experience that results in significant fear, helplessness, dissociation, confusion or other disruptive feelings intense enough to have a long-lasting negative effect on a person’s attitudes, behavior and other aspects of functioning. Traumatic events include those caused by human behavior (e.g., rape, war, industrial accidents) as well as by nature (e.g., earthquakes) and often challenge an individual’s view of the world as a just, safe and predictable place.”
In explaining post-traumatic stress disorder, the APA explicitly associates PTSD with natural disasters. The organization goes on to say: “People with post-traumatic stress disorder may relive the event via intrusive memories, flashbacks and nightmares; avoid anything that reminds them of the trauma; and have anxious feelings they didn’t have before that are so intense their lives are disrupted.”
And what do humans do when we experience trauma, at any scale? Ideally, we seek the comfort and support of other people.
“It is not good for a person to be alone,” God says to Adam in Genesis chapter 2 before finding a partner for him. (Genesis 2:18) Noah, upon leaving the ark, finds himself — apart from his close family and some animals — completely alone. Judaism is filled with built-in solidarity systems to ensure that people don’t face difficult tasks in solitude. We study Torah with a chavruta, which is Aramaic for “friend.” When a loved one dies, we say the Mourner’s Kaddish with a minyan, a group of 10 or more. Rebbe Nachman of Breslov taught that, in addition to learning texts with a partner, one should speak frequently with a friend about the challenges of everyday life.
Had Noah had access to the right people, be they companions, psychiatric professionals or even kind strangers, would the first vineyard have even been planted?
In today’s world, in which mental-health resources, medical care, proper nutrition and affordable housing are a luxury, how many image-of-God–endowed humans are we leaving, like Noah, to cope with their problems via whatever (potentially harmful) tools are available to them? And in the current culture, in which pandemic-induced isolation has exacerbated an already-extant loneliness epidemic, how many individuals are we leaving, like Noah, with no one to whom to turn? Does society have all the systems in place to help others in ways that we as individuals are not able to?
In Genesis 9, there is no society. It’s been destroyed. And we see what happens when struggling souls have no community support. But now, the world has been replenished with people. And we have not just the opportunity — but the duty — the build a just world.
Friends, we must not only reach out and support those struggling with mental illness. We must also advocate that those all-too invisible in their suffering have access to the mental health resources that they so desperately need and deserve. In seeing Noah’s despair, we see the human story of isolation and trauma. With every external destruction, there can also be internal destruction. As we build and rebuild our outer world, we must also tend to our inner worlds. JN
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the president and dean of Valley Beit Midrash and the author of 20 books on Jewish ethics.