A friend of mine says that “life begins after Simchat Torah”, and in a way, by the time the holidays are over, there is an eagerness to get back to “normal”. But for me, especially that last afternoon in the sukkah, is also full of sadness. I try to think, what is the first “real” thing I should do this year? I contemplate ways to stretch that feeling of “high” from the “high holidays”, do something super special and never let it go, but as it turns out, the daily routine is much more powerful than my best intentions, and it’s so easy to get sucked in.
Noah in this week’s Torah reading has the same challenge: the whole world has just been wiped clean. Only he – and his immediate family – get to start from scratch. What should he do? The verse is not clear which, not surprisingly, allows different commentaries to view it differently: ויחל נח איש האדמה ויטע כרם
Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch translates it as: “Noah begun to be the man of the soil (or earth), and he planted a vineyard” (Genesis 9:20). He bases his translation on the fact that the Hebrew says “man of the soil” rather than simply “soil-man” which would be farmer (“field man” elsewhere is hunter). He thus looks at it as two separate things that Noah did: 1. He started being the “man of the world”, and 2. He also planted a vineyard. He explains that Noah now begins to feel some ownership over the earth, as if by his survival, the earth is now entrusted to him. And as “proof”, he planted the best fruit possible: a vineyard that produces grapes. “Is it a wonder that the first wine filled him with ecstasy? Is it too hard to believe that he was already drunk with joy”? asks the Rav. He connects the word “kerem”, vineyard with “gerem” as in “gerem madregot”, a flight of stairs, perhaps because vineyards are planted in terraces, and perhaps, as he explains later, he grows the choicest of plants as a sign of the renewed blessing.
The Kotzker Rebbe (1787-1859) is less forgiving. He borrows from the Yerushalmi, which in this case is not the Talmud, but an Aramaic translation of the Torah. The other translations to Aramaic (Yonatan & Onkelos) call Noah גבר פלח בארעא – a farmer or worker man of the land, and still today, the Arabic word “falach” is a farmer. But the Yerushalmi calls Noah גבר צדיקא gvar tzadika, almost like in the beginning of the story: Noah is a righteous man, a tzadik. Comes the Kotzker and says, yes, a tzadik but an earthly tzadik, a tzadik among people, in the midst of the city and he became drunk, perhaps from real grapes but perhaps just from him thinking that he is so great. As we say, it all went up to his head. Of course, we can question the Kotzker, what city are you talking about?? Everybody was lost in the flood!! But the message is, Noah was no longer the ish tzadik-tamim, a whole hearten righteous, but a worldly man who might even think too highly of himself.
Rashi, in the name of the midrash, says something else: “asa atzmo chulin, shehaya lo la’asok tchila be’neti’a acheret” – “he made himself mundane, for he should have busied himself with other plantings first”. Rashi here doesn’t justify the drunkenness as joy, but likewise doesn’t criticize. Rashi, among other things, also happens to be a vintner. And he surely knows how powerful and tempting wine is. He just says, eh, Noah, you could have done so many better things with all this energy, and instead… oy.
Usually, we compare Noah to Abraham and Noah comes out so-so since he doesn’t argue with G-d etc, but what is we compared him to any survivor of any other major disaster? We might find that all the reactions we see in him are common and even appropriate: the immense joy, the potential arrogance and still, the tremendous guilt and sadness, thus seeking familiar escapes (commentaries also point out that is says “hayayin”, the wine, telling us the Noah knew about wine drinking – and being drunk – before the flood; hence he also knew to go into the tent and sleep it off).
Rashi, to me, brings the saddest voice: Noah, he wants to say, you survived the flood! The greatest, biggest Flood! Ever!! And you do what now?? For G-d’s sake, busy yourself with something better! There are other things to plant. Choose one! Any one! Start small and grow on, but pick the right thing to start from!
Perhaps this also is the call to us after the chagim: we survived! And it’s tempting to run back and do what we always do, but maybe we should pause for a moment; not drink it off, not sleep it off, but find a way to take something from those 3 plus weeks of opening wow and bring that into the year.
The month of Cheshvan, the second month in the Hebrew calendar starting this Shabbat, is also known as Mar-Cheshvan, mar being bitter. This month is bitter, some say, because there are no holidays in it. But, there is one special day; a day that repeats weekly – Shabbat. Some commentators connect the colors of the rainbow with the six days of creation (you can play with which color is which day :), pointing out to the fact that both the rainbow and Shabbat – the culmination of creation – are referred to as signs of the brit, the covenants between G-d and people. This is only one of the many things we can learn about Shabbat.
The truth is, we don’t need more holidays right now. We survived, we got our new chance and that’s great. We have to build ourselves up again, almost from scratch. We can start small and go from there.