This week’s Torah portion, Noah, (Gen. 6:9-11:32) tells a story of an ancient flood which wiped out all life in the world except for that of Noah, his wife and sons and his sons’ wives, and one each male and female of every species. In the beginning of the tale, Noah is “a righteous man in his generation, he was above reproach; Noah walked with God” (Gen. 6:9). Noah does God’s bidding. He builds the ark to the exact specifications, collects the animals, lives through the flood, and watches everything else on earth die. After spending nearly a full year on the ark, God gives them permission to leave it. Noah builds an altar and God blesses Noah and his family, and makes a covenant with them with the rainbow as its sign.
And the next we hear of Noah, he plants a vineyard, drinks of the wine and becomes drunk, then lies naked in his tent. What has become of the righteous man, above reproach, who walked with God?
Almost ten years ago, I was in Biloxi, Mississippi on a Hillel trip to help repair the extensive damage done by hurricane Katrina. Across the street from the home on which we worked, a woman lived in a FEMA trailer on the front lawn of her destroyed home. We noticed that she started drinking bourbon at about ten every morning. One day she told us her flood narrative. When the hurricane was due to land, her boyfriend tied her with a belt high on a telephone pole, and she stayed there for nine hours as the waters rose. In those hours, she told us, she watched the dead body of her neighbor’s child wash down the street past her. A snake slithered up the telephone pole, and she claimed that their eyes met in mutual fear. Neither of them tried to harm the other. She also told us that she had had a drinking problem in the past, but had been clean and sober for six years before the hurricane. She lost her home and her sobriety, but she still held the awful memories of what she had seen.
Perhaps there are things that human beings endure that cause them to seek comfort in whatever way they can. Drinking alcohol can be one of those comforts. Sometimes they can be transcended. I hope that the woman in Biloxi is once again safe in her own home, and has regained her sobriety. And maybe for the first time, I understand why Noah needed to do what he did.