Torah Knowledge For Non-Jews Vol. 1
17. Parsha Noach - by Rabbi Shlomo Riskin
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of the community of Efrat
“And Noah the man of the earth became profaned [or merely “began” to work], and he planted a vineyard” (Genesis 9:20).
Rashi (1040-1105), the most classical of the commentators, explains that “when Noah entered the ark, he brought with him branches [of the vine] and shoots of fig-trees.”
Apparently, Rashi is perplexed about the origin of the grape-seeds. After all, all animal and plant life had been destroyed in the flood except for whatever had been preserved in the ark. Rashi therefore tells us that Noah brought branches of the vine into the ark.
But why must he add “shoots of fig-trees” which seems superfluous to our question? And if Rashi is quoting what the Talmud sages taught in Midrash Rabbah, why did he not include “olive saplings,” which the midrash also suggests?
Why does Rashi select for inclusion in the ark the grape and the fig when our textual problem could have been resolved with grape branches alone and faithfulness to the Midrash would have demanded including olive saplings?
Selfish or Selfless?
Noah’s story opens with what appears to be a complimentary character description: “Noah was a righteous man, wholehearted in his generations; Noah walked with G-d” (Genesis 6:9).
Nevertheless, Rashi tells us: “there are among our sages those who expound these words [“in his generations”] as giving praise [to Noah] … and there are those who expound these words as denigrating [to Noah].”
Why give such a praiseworthy description a negative spin, suggesting that Noah’s righteousness was only in comparison to his contemporaries?
The Maharal of Prague explains: Abraham argued with G-d on behalf of the preservation of the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah; but Noah appears to remain silent when informed that the entire world is about to be destroyed by a flood.
He seems satisfied to rescue himself and his immediate family via the ark. He decides to remain an isolationist only interested in self-preservation.
However, a second way of interpreting insists that had he been a contemporary of Abraham’s, Noah would have been even more righteous.
According to this view, Noah took 120 years to construct his ark, spending the extra time in trying to convince the citizens of the world to forsake violence, accept the basic morality expressed by ethical monotheism, and establish governments whose greatest value was pursuit of peace.
The deluge recedes, and Noah leaves the ark. He plants a vineyard. Where did he get the grape-seeds?
Here again there are two views in the Midrash. One opinion has it that he made a pact with Satan, who brought him the seed to plant his vines and ultimately produce wine.
This is Noah the isolationist, who allows evil to remain in power, who is blind to the satanic governments who enslave their citizenry and use terror to control the weaker vessels. In return for wine (or drugs or oil) it may be worth Noah’s while to come to a “business agreement” with Satan.
The second opinion sees Noah as a righteous proselytizer who never gives up on humanity. Even after 120 years of fruitless preaching about morality, Noah still doesn’t give up.
Yes, G-d commands him to enter the ark, literally forces him to do so as the waters of the deluge begin to engulf him (Genesis 7:7, Rashi ad loc).
But Noah feels the need to take with him seeds of the grape and the fig, wine being a symbol of freedom (remember the Passover cups of wine harking back to the biblical expressions of redemption) and both fruits indigenous to the Land of Israel.
Medieval Spanish commentator Nachmanides insists that the Land of Israel was the one place in the world where ethical monotheism was never forgotten, and so he maintains that the flood never engulfed Israel.
Noah brings the seeds of these fruits to remind future generations never to stop fighting against injustice and violence, never to forget the message of the people of Israel which will emanate from the land of Israel, never to give up the battle for a humanity accepting of a G-d of justice and peace.
And why does Rashi insist on the vine and the fig?
Micah prophesies that, at the end of the days, when the world will accept G-d’s morality emanating from Zion and Jerusalem, then “everyone will sit under his vine and fig-tree and will not fear, for the word of G-d will have been spoken [and accepted]” (Micah 4).