Are you disappointed in the state of American politics today? I think we all are. Let me use an even stronger word. Who is not disgusted by the morally bankrupt behavior of Hillary Clinton and by the lude things that have come out of the mouth of Donald Trump? How do we deal with that disappointment?
An on-going theme of the 1st two Torah portions in the Torah is disappointment. Gd is disappointed in Adam and Eve when they ate from the forbidden fruit; He’s disappointed in Cain when he slays his brother Abel; and He’s disappointed again as humanity debases itself into a morally bankrupt society. Undaunted, Gd looks for at least one righteous person and his family to start over with—or at least someone who wasn’t as bad as all the others.
But how to choose? As bad as everyone was, Gd could see that each person had some redeeming quality. He had to choose someone. Not making a choice would lead to the extinction of the world. No choice was a bad choice.
Finally Gd chose Noah. People considered Noah righteous though Gd knew that there would be better prophets and leaders in times to come. Noah tried hard not to give in to the greed and hatred of his world— though he didn’t always succeed. He had a tendency to blurt out inappropriate curses; he also was overly fond of wine; but Noah tried to walk with Gd even if he sometimes failed.
We love the story of Noah building the ark on dry land nowhere near a body of water and then 2 by 2 representatives of all the animal species of the world peacefully enter. Finally, Gd creates the wonderful rainbow to symbolize that He will never again destroy the world. Most of us smile when we think of the Noah story and the rainbow.
However, what happens when Noah leaves the ark is nothing to smile about. After Noah opens the window and sees that the flood waters are gone, he doesn’t leave until Gd commands him to do so. Perhaps it’s because he feels safe in this ark that had saved him and his family…or perhaps he’s terrified to face what he may find outside.
When he finally does leave, what does he do? He plants a vineyard (Gen. 9:21) and gets drunk—rolling about in his tent in a drunken stupor. Why? Why should Noah have become the world’s 1st drunk? Our sages offer different approaches. Perhaps he was the 1st person to plant a vineyard and taste an alcoholic beverage…and so he simply didn’t realize how powerful it could be. Perhaps.
Rabbi Jack Reimer suggests that Noah was the 1st Holocaust survivor—the 1st person to ever see his entire world go literally down the drain. Every friend he had…died in the flood. Every man, woman and child that he knew—except his own family—every bird and beast—except the ones in the ark—every house, street and landmark that he knew gone, disappeared in the flood.
And so Noah came out into a world that he didn’t recognize. What did he see? Probably lots of dead bodies and animal carcasses lying around everywhere and all vegetation destroyed. It must have been so depressing. I’m sure he was filled with horror and shock, grief and even guilt. Yes, guilt for not doing a better job of warning people what would happen if they didn’t change their cruel and immoral behavior.
How do you live after a holocaust? How do you face a reality so horrible? My guess is that perhaps Noah wasn’t sure if he wanted to live. He certainly didn’t want to face reality, and therefore he tried to drown his sorrows in wine.
What did his children make of his behavior? When his son Cham and grandson Canaan see him rolling about naked in his tent, they appear to laugh and make fun of him. In contrast, his 2 other sons—Sheym and Yefet—modestly take a garment, walk backwards to cover their father so that they not look upon him and shame him. Rabbi Avi Weiss (Shabbat Forshpeis 10/23/98) suggests that Noah’s children present us with 2 different responses of what to do when someone close to you disappoints you. Reflecting on the great philosopher Saadia Gaon, he suggests that:
When a friend disappoints us—and there is no friendship without disappointment—we can opt to allow that particular feeling to destroy the larger relationship [like Cham and Canaan]. Or we can bracket the falling out and try to learn from it. But even if the issue which causes the tension is not resolved, we have it within our power to take into account that person’s goodness and move on with the friendship [like Sheym and Yefet].
After providing heroically for his family in building this massive ark which took so many years and keeping it afloat for the entire year of the flood, Noah fails—he gets drunk. The reaction of his son Cham and grandson Canaan was to allow this mistake to destroy their entire relationship with their father and grandfather. How many of us take that approach when someone we care about disappoints us? Do we cut them off and sever the relationship?
Better to follow Noah’s other sons Sheym and Yefet. Yes their father had become drunk. But they didn’t allow this one disappointment in their father to erase all he had done for them in providing for them, protecting them and loving them over all the years. So they covered up his nakedness, and in doing so they isolated this wrong, learned from it—even as they continued to love and respect their father.
None of us are perfect. As we tolerate our own failings, so must we tolerate the failings of others. Surprisingly, one of the words for beloved in Hebrew is reya, which contains the word ra (bad or evil). The test of a relationship is what happens when a disappointment sets in, when someone does something ra, something bad. Can we remain reyim, loved ones and not forget all the good our beloved has done?
Sheym and Yefet teach that in a genuine and deep relationship, one doesn’t allow a falling out to destroy the love that exists and they take their cue from Gd.
Gd experiences profound disappointment from the time He creates the world until the end of today’s Torah portion where mankind tries to conquer the Heavens by building the Tower of Babel. Gd knows there’s one thing He cannot control—mankind, because man was made in the image of Gd and has free choice. What emerges as most powerful in all these stories of Gd’s disappointments is—surprisingly—Gd’s love. Gd chooses to have a relationship with us despite the fact that we disappoint Him over and over again. He makes adjustments and moves on—trying yet another way to make the relationship work. It didn’t work with Adam and his children, so He tried with Noah and his children. When that didn’t work Gd tries again with Abraham and his descendants. Gd doesn’t forget the good and chooses to try again and again to find a way to make His relationship with human beings work. That’s a profound model for us all.
The lesson for us this week—when America will elect a new president on Tuesday—is that we must make the best choice possible, even when we are so disappointed in our choices because neither choice is appealing. I know you’re fed up by all the negative campaigning to which you have been exposed…and profoundly disappointed in the behavior of our candidates. But making no choice is also a choice. So I’m calling on every one of us to vote this week. I believe that it is our sacred obligation as Americans and as Jews. Besides, if you don’t choose, you give up the right to complain. Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis