Midrash

Noah: Man of the Earth (More Midrash Ep. 2)

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The Midrash

Bereishit Rabbah 36:3

“Noah, the man of the earth, began (va-ya-cheil)…” (Genesis 9:20). He profaned himself (nit-challeil) and became mundane (chullin). Why? “…and he planted a vineyard.”

Should he not have planted a different species, more beneficial? Not a branch of a fig tree or a branch of an olive tree?! But rather, “…and he planted a vineyard.”

Now, from where did he have them? Rabbi Abba bar Kahana said: He brought with him into the Ark vines for plantings, fig shoots for fig trees, olive branches for olive trees. Thus it is written, “Take for yourself of every food that is eaten and gather it in to yourself” (Genesis 6:21). A person does not gather in something unless he has need of it for himself.

There were three who had a passion for agriculture, but received no benefit. And these are they: Cain, Noah, and Uzziah. “And Cain became a tiller of the ground” (Genesis 4:2). “Noah, the man of the earth” (Genesis 9:20). And Uzziah, “He had much livestock…as well as field workers and vine-dressers in the hills and in the Carmel, for he was a lover of agriculture” (2 Chronicles 26:10).

“The master (ish) of the earth.” Because he made a face for the earth; and because on his account the earth became moistened; and because he filled the entire face of the earth.

“The man of the earth.” A tiller on account of his tillage.

Rabbi Berechyah said: Moses was more beloved than Noah. Noah, after having been called “a righteous man” (Genesis 6:9) was called “a man of the earth” (Genesis 9:20). However, Moses, after having been called “an Egyptian man” (Exodus 2:19), was called “the man of God” (Deuteronomy 33:1).

“And planted a vineyard.” At the time that he was going to plant a vineyard, he encountered a demon named Shemadon. Shemadon said to him: I shall be a partner with you, but be careful that you do not enter into my portion. For if you do enter into my portion, I will harm you.

Understanding the Midrash

Our midrash interprets the verse from Genesis 9:20: Vayacheil Noach, ish ha-adamah, vayita karem.

This biblical verse has two intriguing elements. First, there is a potential grammatical irregularity. Read hyperliterally, the verse is as follows:

And began Noah, the man of the earth, and he planted a vineyard.

Contextually, the verse most likely means that Noah began to plant a vineyard. The Hebrew could account for such a reading, but nonetheless it also can be read as the awkward version above, which has two sections that are not obviously connected – And began Noah, And he planted a vineyard. This leads to the question – (1) what does “began” (vayacheil) really mean; and (2) how is it connected to planting the vineyard?

The second intriguing element of the verse is Noah’s designation as “the man of the earth” (ish ha-adamah). Two more questions require answering: (1) why is Noah called “the man of the earth” here; and (2) what does the title really mean?

While there are a number of subunits, the larger midrash follows a three-part structure, beginning ostensibly with “And he began” – an exploration of the downfall of Noah because of wine. The middle part plays out the possibilities of Noah as “man of the earth”. The third part, the strangest, returns to the planting of vineyards and leaves us with a warning – if you will be like Noah (and most of us are), tread (grapes) with caution.

The midrash begins with wordplay on vayacheil. The root can mean “to begin”, but it can also mean the opposite of holy (kadosh). The midrash offers two aspects of this variant meaning: “to profane”, an active degradation of what is holy, and “to be mundane”, a more neutral quality of non-holiness. Apparently, Noah, who was called a tzaddik, a righteous one, and presumably holy enough to converse with God, actively takes himself out of the quality of holiness such that he ends up being mundane, ordinary, no longer exceptional.

The midrash explicitly ties this unfortunate process to Noah’s cultivation of a vineyard. Planting doesn’t seem to be a problematic activity (especially after a devastating natural disaster such as a great flood. Is creating wine at odds with holiness? The midrash suggests so, that he should have planted first a fig tree or olive tree. Although in later times, wine will come to symbolize the sanctification of holy moments, Noah has a rare opportunity in human history – a true chance to set precedent, unseen since the days of Adam before him, and unseen again through today. In this particular story, we know Noah will become utterly drunk, and this misuse of wine, whereby he creates the potential and precedent for extreme intoxication, is what is meant by profaning oneself, actively distancing oneself from the condition of holiness.

The midrash continues, wondering where Noah got the vines to plant. Now it is obvious that he must have had them on the Ark, and indeed we learn this is so, but the midrash wants us to know that we only take what we have need for – and therefore grapes if not wine were needed before the flood as well. Would figs or olives have set a different course of history if Noah had chosen to need them before needing wine?

Next in the midrash we are told that there are three characters who invest in agriculture but get no benefit. Cain fails to win God’s favor when he makes an offering from his produce. Noah loses holiness and dignity through drinking the wine he made. And Uzziah, well, who is Uzziah? Uzziah is a king of Judah who does really well in life by following God’s words, until he becomes very successful and attempts to offer incense in the Temple. He is struck with leprosy until the end of his days, and is kept in isolation (check this). Like Noah and Cain, he starts with noble intentions and a desire for closeness to God, but somewhere along the way each acts so as to distance themselves from God. Cain murders his brother. Noah turns to intoxication. Uzziah acts with arrogance. Their cultivation, which requires awareness of environment and ecosystem, the delicate balances of natural growing, ends up without benefit when they each dramatically interfere with themselves (Noah), those around them (Cain), or God’s domain (Uzziah).

The second piece of the midrash lays out a range of connotations for the title, “man of the earth.”

“The master (ish) of the earth.” Because he made a face for the earth; and because on his account the earth became moistened; and because he filled the entire face of the earth.

“The man of the earth.” A tiller on account of his tillage.

Rabbi Berechyah said: Moses was more beloved than Noah. Noah, after having been called “a righteous man” (Genesis 6:9) was called “a man of the earth” (Genesis 9:20). However, Moses, after having been called “an Egyptian man” (Exodus 2:19), was called “the man of God” (Deuteronomy 33:1).

One possibility understands it as an honorific or title, illustrating his relationship to the land. Ish most literally means “man,” but it also has the function of “master” or “husband”, a sense of authority and responsibility. Noah is the one who re-cultivates the land after the flood, and who becomes the patriarch of all humanity as his descendents spread out over the face of the earth.

The second possibility is that the expression simply reflects his work, tilling the soil. This is a value-neutral term that points to his role, not to his character. Tilling, which includes such activities as digging, overturning, and stirring the dirt, does contrast with the serenity of Noah’s name, which implies comfort, rest, stillness.

The final possibility reflects negatively on Noah’s virtue. Noah may have been righteous, critically important in the continuity of humanity, but he fails to live up to the potential of his holiness, whereas Moses, to whom the midrash compares him, manages to elevate his nature in the course of his story. The midrashic vehicle for delivering this point is that in Noah’s story, he is first called ish tzaddik, a righteous man, and then called ish ha-adamah, the earthy man. Moses, meanwhile, is called ish mitzri, an Egyptian man, first, before later being called ish ha-elohim. In both cases, their first title is indefinite (a man…) while the second title is definite (the man…) representing perhaps potential and its realization/concretization. Some irony in how Noah, the man of adamah, with its evocation of adam, humanity, decreases in stature because he abandons humanity and chooses God, while Moses, whose title links him intimately to God, earns that distinction by fiercely protecting people in the face of God’s offer to destroy them and repopulate the vision with Moses’ descendents.

We find another link between Moses and Noah that is not mentioned in the midrash, but perhaps alluded to. And it goes back to that word, vayacheil. Precisely when Moses needs to save humans from God’s anger in the face of the travesty of the golden calf, that word describes his action. Here are the words of Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, a modern master teacher of midrash.

But at this moment Moses begins to speak: this is, in a sense, his first real speech. “Moses entreated in the presence of God His God” ([Exodus] 32:11). The unusual verb, va-yichal (he entreated) is rich with associations: sickness, engendering, a vacuum, the profane. In a remarkable reading, the Talmud describes Moses as standing in prayer until feverish sickness grips him: “What is feverish sickness? R. Elazar said, A fire in the bones.” [B. Brachot 32a] (Moses: A Human Life)

While wine might also give us, like Noah, a feeling of internal warmth, Moses displays how righteous, radical caring for others provides a better fire in the bones.

The final teaching of the midrash intriguingly introduces us to a demon. 

“And planted a vineyard.” At the time that he was going to plant a vineyard, he encountered a demon named Shemadon. Shemadon said to him: I shall be a partner with you, but be careful that you do not enter into my portion. For if you do enter into my portion, I will harm you.

Here we seem to get a warning that cultivating wine can be beneficial but that there are boundaries which if crossed cause harm. To enter into the demon’s portion of an endeavor…what does it mean to partner with dark forces? Are these demons all bad? Regarding one’s shadow self – do you respect it at a distance? Is confronting it directly possible? Or is Noah an exception?

Shamdon seems to be at the time of our midrash the same character as Ashmodai (Asmodeus). According to the Jewish Encyclopedia:

“Ashmedai of the Solomonic legend, on the other hand, is not at all a harmful and destructive spirit. Like the devil in medieval Christian folk-lore, he is a “king of demons” (Pes. 110a), degraded and no longer the dreaded arch-fiend, but the object of popular humor and irony. The name “Ashmedai” was probably taken as signifying “the cursed”…

However we understand the supernatural element of this teaching, the lesson is clear – being human involves working with our darkest qualities, and in fact reaching our potential for goodness requires understanding how to partner with what might seem quite bad. We can set and honor boundaries around our inner darkness, rather than repressing it or giving in to it. And then we, like God who hovered over the dark waters before Creation, have the possibility of building something new and beautiful out of chaos and destruction.

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