The Invention of ‘Retirement’
Noach (Genesis 6:9-11:32 )
Bereishis, 9:10: “Noach, the man of the earth, debased himself and planted a vineyard.”
Bereishis Rabbah, 36:3: R’Berachia says, Moshe is more beloved than Noach: Noach, [went from] being called a righteous man’, [to being] called a man of the ground, but Moshe [went from] being called an Egyptian man to being called a man of God.
The Torah records that upon returning to land after the Flood, Noach planted a vine. In Its description of this episode, the Torah describes him as ‘Ish ha’adamah’ – the man of the ground. Chazal explain that when Noach returned to the land, he planted vineyards and drank wine from the grapes that grew. Consequently, he became intoxicated and as a result, the tragic course of events involving his son, Cham took place. The obvious question is why did Noach suffer such a quick spiritual descent from being a righteous man to being a man of the ground?
Rabbi Leib Helman1 in his Work on Chumash, Chikrei Lev, addresses this issue.2 He points out that in order to understand the background to Noach’s actions after he left the Ark, it is important to gain a deeper appreciation of the immensely difficult situation that Noach faced during his time in the Ark.
There were two aspects of this difficulty. Firstly, the Midrash Tanchuma tells us that Noach and his sons were responsible for feeding all of the animals in the Ark. The problem was that the animals eat at different times, some eat in the middle of the night and some in the day. Therefore, Noach had to be awake all the time feeding the animals. And the one time he was late feeding the lion, the lion clawed him and left him with permanent injury. Noach had to endure this lifestyle where he could only hope for snatches of brief sleep for a full year. The challenge was so great that Chazal tell us that the words in Psalms of, “Bring me out of the imprisonment of my soul”, was uttered by Noach with regard to his torrid time being enclosed in the Ark.
Rabbi Helman proves that there was a second, less obvious aspect of suffering that Noach endured during this time, according to the commentary of Rashi. He brings a number of proofs that Rashi holds that Noach and his family had no idea how long they would have to be in the Ark and even if they would ever actually emerge from the Ark alive.3 One proof is that the Torah says that “Elokim remembered”4 – Rashi explains that the strict aspect of Hashem, known as Elokim, switched to the trait of Mercy through the prayers of the righteous people in the Ark. The implication is that without these prayers, the people in the Ark were due to die. Another proof is the way Rashi explains the verse before the Flood began “And I will establish My covenant with you and you will come to the Ark.”5 The Ramban explains that this covenant is the promise that Noach and his family would survive in the Ark and would come out alive. However, Rashi explains the covenant in a totally different way – that it was a promise that the fruit would not rot and that the wicked people would not kill Noach. Thus, according to Rashi, we never see any indication that God assured Noach that he and his family would survive the flood.
According to this understanding, Noach’s suffering was multiplied exponentially by the fact that he never knew if he would actually survive the Flood. It is well-known that a big part of suffering is the uncertainty that a person will ever actually come out of the situation they are in. If the person would know for sure that this difficult episode would definitely end, even if it was in a long time, it would certainly be far easier to handle the challenge than if he never knows that there is an end in sight.
With this background, we can return to the question of why Noach immediately planted a vineyard when he returned to dry land. He endured a lifetime full of challenges, living among wicked people who mercilessly mocked him, and then enduring a year of true Gehinnom without even knowing if he would ever emerge. In addition, Noach would also be justified in thinking that he had achieved unparalleled success in life – he was the foundation of the entire world – the only person who deserved to be spared. Based on all this, Noach understandably felt that he had a right to enjoy the fruits of the world, hence he planted a vineyard and enjoyed from the wine.6 Yet, Rav Helman points out, Noach was mistaken – this world is for work and the next world is for enjoyment. Even at the end of one’s life, a person has no right to think he no longer needs to struggle and strive to grow.
Rabbi Helman adds a very interesting point – he suggests that Noach invented the idea of ‘retirement’, which was adapted by his descendants, the Bnei Noach, but not by the Jewish people. Rabbi Yissachar Frand expresses this point:
There is a common – almost universal – opinion in the world that after a person completes his job he retires. That, he says, is a concept for Children of Noach. It started with Noach. This was Noach’s gift to the world – the idea of retirement. Therefore, his descendants – Bnei Noach – follow in his footsteps. If you are lucky, you can do it at 62, if you retire on full Social Security, you can do it at 66, if you become a millionaire, you can do it at 54, and so forth. But at some point, you retire. And then what do you do? I don’t know. You can travel the country, you can read the paper, you can take up bridge. That is not what the Ribono shel Olam (God) expected from human beings. Retirement is something a Jew should never think about. That does not mean that a person can never stop working a job. But no one should have the attitude “I am finished. I can sit back and relax now.”
Indeed, many great people made their most ‘successful’ accomplishments at the end of their lives. For example, Rabbi Yosef Breuer moved to America aged 65 after a highly productive life but he didn’t rest on his laurels. In fact, he started the new community of Washington Heights which had a great effect on numerous people.
Noach teaches us that for a Jew, despite all the challenges one faces, and all the successes he achieves, he can never think to himself, ‘I can retire’.
- He was a Rav in Baltimore and moved to Eretz Yisrael later in life where he was a Rav in Bayit Vegan.
- Chikrei Lev, Maamar 10.
- Ibid, pp.86-87. He notes that the Ramban clearly argues with Rashi and holds that Noach knew he would emerge from the Ark alive.
- Bereishit, 8:1.
- Bereishit, 6:18.
- Needless to say, there are many different layers of understanding to Noach’s actions, and as is always the case, Noach’s mistake is greatly magnified by the Torah.