Noah: Learning from a Good Man with Flaws

Certain Torah portions have special memories. For me, the portion about Noah reminds me of my son Ethan’s bar mitzvah two years ago.

Certain Torah portions have special memories. For me, the portion about Noah reminds me of my son Ethan’s bar mitzvah two years ago. Ethan desperately wanted Noah to be his portion. He loves animals, and a portion about preservation of species appealed to him. He loves Legos, and the ark seems like a big Lego project. He liked an unambiguous hero in Noah, a man who was righteous and pure when everyone else was evil.

All was good until we got to the end of the story. What does Noah do as he leaves the ark following months and months with just his family and all the animals? He plants a vineyard, produces wines and becomes a falling-down drunk. Ethan did not like this twist in the story.  For him, it took away from a good story. For me, it makes him even more human and the lessons more real.  Noah is like so many, overwhelmed by what he has experienced,  traumatized by seeing the world destroyed, cramped in an ark with animals and family, uncertain of the future and maybe regretting not doing more to save others. He seeks to escape through alcohol. And the results are catastrophic. Maybe it is an important message about how inability to face painful emotions can result in regrettable behavior.

But what happens next is even more disturbing. It is also enigmatic and unclear. Look at 9:21, “He drank of the wine and became drunk and he uncovered himself within his tent. Ham, the father of Canaan saw his father’s nakedness and told his two brothers outside.” The language seems purposely imprecise. What went on? Did Ham do anything wrong? You need to read on: “But Shem and Japheth took a cloth, placed it against both their backs and walking backward, they covered their father’s nakedness, their faces were turned the other way, so that they did not see their father’s nakedness.” When Noah wakes up, he curses Ham’s son Canaan: “Cursed by Canaan; The lowest of slaves Shall he be to his brothers.”

What did Ham do that was so wrong? And why punish his son? Maybe the contrast between Ham and his brothers gives a clue. They respect their father, even when their father does something wrong. In contrast, Ham rushes to tell what he saw – more interested in the gossip than in responding with compassion and respect. The ability to retain respect for one who may not have lived up to their best at a particular moment is a powerful lesson.

The Midrash imagines that all kinds of other misdeeds may have occurred. The word for nakedness – ervah – in other places is used with sexual indiscretion. Lessons about consequences for violating another person who may be compromised are similarly important. Some Midrashim imagine Ham’s son Canaan being involved in the indiscretion as well. Bible scholars see this as a later addition to explain the ongoing disagreements between the Canaanites and Israelites.

But maybe different lessons emerge as we delve more deeply into the original text. Maybe this text highlights misuse of alcohol. Lessons of how good people misuse alcohol need to be told and retold. Maybe Ham’s conversation with Shem and Japeth was not quite the snark-fest we presume, but a plea to deal with dad who humiliated by his misuse of alcohol. If this is the meaning of the story, then Shem and Japhet walking in backwards are young men who can’t look at a father who embarrasses them.

In contrast to Shem and Japhet turning away, Rabbi Jack Moline portrays Ham as a hero who sees what others avoid. He looks at the family pain and shame squarely rather than hide, deny or pretend it is not happening. Ham is the one who looks honestly at the situation that he faces. Rabbi Moline argues that Ham’s love of his father was brave. By looking squarely at the truth and bringing it to light he opens the possibility of addressing the pain Noah self-medicated by leaving it exposed for acknowledgment. Ham honored Noah as he was rather than Noah as his other sons wanted him to be.

It takes courage to face pain and past when others want deny shortcomings. I hope we can create safety to be vulnerable and face pain, rather than fear that exposing it will diminish the reputation of the person. I just read in a magazine a review of a book that Patrick Kennedy wrote about his family. Patrick, the son of Ted and Joan Kennedy shared that growing up in the Kennedy family meant ignoring alcoholism and mental illness close to home. So concerned about image and perception, the truth was hidden. Kennedy writes that they all knew something was wrong. In his words, “My mother spent a lot of time in her bedroom drinking. It was painful for all of us.” Yet no one spoke of it, just as they never aired any pain over the uncles’ assassinations.

Just like Shem and Japhet, eyes were closed. It was too difficult to see or admit. What might people think? In his book Common Struggle, Patrick opens up about the hidden truths: his mother’s alcoholism and depression, his father’s post-traumatic stress disorder from his brothers’ murders that also resulted in alcohol abuse. Patrick hopes that by writing the book, he will help lift the secrecy and shame that people experience with alcoholism, drug abuse and mental illness. I believe he is correct when he shares that most families are frozen by shame and hostage to silence.

Patrick shares his own battle with depression, using cocaine and antianxiety drugs to get through high school. He struggled with his cousin David’s death at 28 due to a drug overdose. Patrick now understands David’s death as PTSD from his father, Robert’s assassination. He writes: “I don’t think anybody understood that the trauma from his father’s death left a real injury, that if untreated, would kill him.”

I believe that there is a power in facing the truth. When we refuse to face what is real, it manifests itself throughout life. The power of Patrick Kennedy’s testimony will help others face their own pain, share their truths and imperfections and not let their secrets destroy them. The fear of stigma or embarrassment is debilitating. The deep-seated need to preserve a particular version of someone you love and admire is powerful. The honesty to acknowledge that someone you love (including yourself) is powerless over alcohol or drugs or another compulsion is terrifying. But real love is facing those truths. That is the lesson of Ham and Patrick Kennedy.

I say this with some ambivalence. Patrick’s brother Ted Jr. said he is heartbroken by the book’s inaccurate and unfair portrayal of their family. I cannot know what is true and what is not. Maybe the interpretation of Noah’s sons that resonates most true for me is that the contrasting reactions of the brothers are all true. Ham, like Patrick Kennedy, teaches us to courageously confront truths other would deny. Shem and Japhet, like Ted Jr., teach that there are other interpretations of the past and that preserving the dignity of our loved ones is a worthy lesson. True wisdom is knowing when to confront and reveal the past, and when to let that past remain private.

Another truth that emerges is that heroes can be flawed, yet remain heroes. Noah was a righteous man, who allowed the world to continue when is faced destruction. He survived and began again. Similarly, Ted Kennedy’s compassion and liberal agenda were unbounded, and he was almost certainly the most effective United States Senator of his generation. His ability to maintain his public equilibrium was remarkable. Yet he too had his flaws – alcohol and at times painful inability to acknowledge the pain that those around him experienced.

The Torah and life are filled with flawed humans who experience pain and turmoil. Like Noah, we are flawed and heroic, noble and base – all woven into one. As we embrace our humanity, learn from our mistakes and confront our pain we emerge stronger and wiser. As we delve into the characters in the Torah, we use their lives to understand our own better. May we continue on our journey to grow as humans.