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Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Parshas Noach and Victimless Crime

The following is from Rabbi Frand; I post it here for two reasons. First, because it is excellent, as always. Second, because of an interesting historical oddity that I discuss afterwards.

The Medrash says, "Had Iyov only come to explain the incident of the Flood, that would have been sufficient." According to our Sages there are many verses in the book of Job that refer to the sins of the generation of the Flood.

For example, the verse in Iyov [24:18] says, "He is light upon the face of the water, their portion in the earth is cursed, he does not turn by way of the vineyards." The Medrash relates this verse to the sin of the generation of the flood: They were cursed that they should perish in water. Why? The Medrash tells us that they were cursed because they lived with their wives not for procreation or for their wives' sake, but only for their own pleasure.

The Medrash in fact already alludes to this in last week's parsha. (See Rashi 4:19 on Lemech’s two wives, Odoh and Tziloh.) "The custom of that generation was to take two wives, one for having children and one for pleasure. The one taken for having children would sit ugly and neglected like a living widow; the one taken for pleasure would be sterilized and would sit by him, made up with cosmetics like a harlot (Rashi says “like a Kalloh.”)."

There are two things that require understanding. First, while this is certainly a terrible practice, it is also not the worst of crimes. We all know cases of domestic violence and abuse, things much worse than these. There are hosts of crimes and perversions which we would consider more vile and worthy of destruction. As we know, there are many people today who live for worldly pleasures, neglecting their spouses and families. They aren't nice people. But are they the worst criminals which society has to offer?

Furthermore, what does the Medrash do with the literal interpretation of the verses? The verses themselves tell us what happened to the generation of the flood and why they were punished. "The earth was decadent before G-d, the land was filled with violence." [Bereshis 6:11]. The Torah tells us that there was so much perversion that it even affected the animals.

This is a whole different story. We can understand sending a Flood to destroy the world for that reason. We can understand such an extreme punishment for decadence, perversion, theft and violence. However, the Medrash tells us that their problem was that they lived with their wives for the purpose of their own pleasure. How can one understand this discrepancy?

The explanation is that the Medrash is not contradicting the verses. The Medrash is speaking of root causes. The verses are speaking of the eventual effect. How is a Generation of the Flood produced? How did they wind up so decadent and perverted that they were deserving of destruction? Our Sages tell us it comes from a philosophy of life that says, "Have a good time".
If the pursuit of pleasure goes unchecked, it will eventually deteriorate into a Generation of the Flood. One thousand five hundred years earlier (?), when Lemech took two wives -- one for children and one for pleasure -- that was not the absolute worst of crimes. But, it was a philosophy of life.

Eat, Drink, be Merry, have a good time, and enjoy yourself; self- gratification, live-for-today." When people pursue pleasure with a vengeance, it eventually gives way to "the land became corrupted before the L-rd".

One has to go no further than to look at society today to discover what happens to a culture that is only interested in pleasure and self- gratification, in enjoying the moment -- whether it be with passions of the heart, with alcohol, with drugs, or whatever provides a 'good time' right now.
With this idea, we can understand a teaching of the Rabbis at the end of the parsha. The verse tells us [Bereshis 9:20] "And Noach, the man of the earth, profaned himself and planted a vineyard." The Sages comment that Noach went from being a "righteous and perfect man in his generation" [6:9] to being a "man of the earth", an ordinary farmer.

This is contrasted with Moshe who starts out as being called "an Egyptian man" [Shmos 2:19] and ends up by being called a "Man of G-d" [Devorim 33:1]. Noach was not able to maintain his stature. He went in the other direction - - starting out as being called a righteous man and ending up by being called a man of the earth.

What was his terrible crime? Why did he fall so much in the eyes of G-d? Because he planted a vineyard.

So what is his terrible crime? True, he should have planted wheat; he should have planted string beans, because they are more of a necessity of life. But for that the Torah castigates him that he "profaned himself" (va'Yachal Noach)?

The answer is that Noach failed to learn the lesson of the Flood. Why did the Flood come about? How did it all start? The root cause was that people were into pleasure. What is the first thing one should NOT DO, after a Flood? Seek out pleasures.

Noach chose to plant a vineyard, to plant wine, something he could have lived without. Wine can be wonderful, but it is just for pleasure (I would say that wine has an important place in life, as the Gemorah says “Chamroh v’reichni pikchin,” but after the mabul the appropriate stance would be more aescetic.) This is precisely the lesson he failed to learn and that is how Noach profaned himself.

How did Noach make such a blunder? Noach was a Tzadik. Why did he plant a vineyard? The answer is because we have our Sages to point out the root causes of the evil in the Generation of the Flood. Noach's mistake was to only look at the results and to fail to see the cause. Had he realized that the root cause of the behavior of that generation was the tendency to pursue pleasure, he would never have planted a vineyard. He was smarter than that. He was a bigger Tzadik than that.

His problem was -- as is so often the problem -- that he looked at symptoms and failed to see the disease. We, too, look at outcomes and don't look at causes. This is not a sin of malice or disregard, but a sin of failure to recognize underlying causes.

The underlying cause of the sin of the generation of the flood was not initial decadence. It was a philosophy of "Have a Good Time". That is what Noach failed to see. He looked at the bottom line, rather than at the whole picture. (This ends Rabbi Frand's discussion.)

An interesting modern example of this is the connection of the modern Nudist movement and the rise of Facism. (See W. Will van der, The Transition of German Culture to National Socialism, Source: The Body and the Body Politics as Symptom and Metaphor in the Transition of German Culture to National Socialism" in The Nazification of Art: Art, Design, Music, Architectureand Film in the Third Reich, B. Taylor& W.v.d. Will (eds.) (Hampshire, 1990), pp. 14-52) One would not necessarily see a connection, or that anything is wrong with being a nudist. So they are not modest, what’s the big sin? The answer is that there is a whole network of symptoms that are associated with being “poreik ohl,” with breaking the yoke of modesty both physical and intellectual. Decadence starts out being a victimless crime, but ultimately it brutalizes and destroys the soul of the person who indulges and even infects the people around him.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

I recall you had a particular dislike for him as he was a yeshiva Mate of yours is that not correct?

Barzilai said...

He was indeed a contemporary. I used to think that I disliked him because he was a baal gaavah. Years later, I was reading something from Reb Chaim Shmuelevitz, and I was suddenly stricken with the realization that I disliked him because I was the baal gaavah and I just couldn't deal with the fact that he was so gifted. I wrote him a letter apologizing for the years of tension, which he responded to, saying that it must have been very hard for me to make that admission. It wasn't hard to make the admission, actually. What was hard was looking into the mirror and seeing the portrait of Dorian Grey.

Anonymous said...

WOW That is an Amazing admission I doubt I would be able to do that.