Parashat Noah 5776
Rabbi Steinhardt's Sermons

Parashat Noah 5776

The story of Noah and the great flood…how we love this story.  This week as in past years, as I look around at the material being published connected to this great story, I saw that, like over the past few years, the connection between the flood and environmental issues is emphasized.

Those of you who were here last, week, and those of you who may remember what I spoke about will quickly say: not again. But there was one really interesting piece which I came across, written by an old friend and former class mate, Rabbi Jack Moline. He said: When I looked at the story of Noah this week, my attention was drawn instead to Patrick Kennedy.

You have to read past the two-by-twos and the dove with the olive branch to get to the second set of lessons from Noah.  Though he begins his story as a righteous man in his generation, his fall is recorded in a quick succession of words that compress planting, tending, harvesting, fermenting and drinking grape wine – a long process – into two verses.

Noah becomes a wretched drunk. He is discovered in his tent by his son Ham.  The language seems purposely imprecise, but it’s pretty clear that Noah is in an embarrassing state, not just naked, but compromised and at some point of self-gratification.  Ham then ells his brothers Shem and Japeth, who walk into the tent backwards, eyes averted, they cover their father with a cloth draped between them.  They protect him.  Ham was the villain.

Going back in history and in recent times this story has had a significant influence on how we all deal with substance abuse.  Ham, who calls attention to and takes advantage of Noah, is universally condemned.  Though there is no record of what Ham said to his brothers, it is presumed that he mocked his father and purposely left him exposed in order to increase the shame and ridicule.

And the other two brothers?  They are praised in our commentaries and in other literature.  Such respect did they have for Noah that they turned their backs, averted their eyes and covered up their drunken father.

I often say to you that the beauty of our study of Torah is that it changes as we grow and understand more. This is no different. I’d like us to reconsider this story.  Maybe the economy of the lead up – Noah planted a vineyard and got drunk – is meant to convey that Noah was singularly focused on the wine.  I won’t presume to argue for or against his drinking as a choice or a disease, though I do have sympathy for the notion that losing your entire world every single person you know, in forty days, could drive anyone to drink.  But consider something else! Maybe this incident was not a one-time thing.

And maybe Ham’s conversation with Shem and Japeth was not quite what we presume, but a plea to deal with dad who was again humiliated by his habitual drinking.

In that context, it is not so praiseworthy for sons to turn their heads and pretend that he just doesn’t see.  In that context, the sheet draped over the patriarch in a drunken stupor is less about modesty and more about denial and hiding a dirty little secret.

So what if we look at this differently? Both reactions were motivated by love, but only Ham’s love was brave.  Only Ham’s love opened the possibility of addressing the pain Noah self-medicated by leaving him exposed.  Ham’s love exposed Noah, but maybe, it was only that exposure that could lead to change.  You first have to admit it!

The other sons covered him up…as they covered up his problems and perhaps their problems also…because addiction creates dysfunction in an entire family system.

So back to Kennedy…For a lot of people, the Kennedy clan was and is populated by icons, not human beings.  Those of us who admired one or more of them were willing to overlook their personal recklessness and hypocrisy, and those people who despised them were willing to see nothing but.  To me, they always represented people who had no practical reason to care for the poor and disenfranchised, but did so anyway.  I admire that quality in a human being. They engaged in public service when they came from a world that would have enabled them to stay away from such challenges and the needs of this society. But they were human…and they suffered from their humanity.

Patrick Kennedy, youngest child of the late Sen. Ted Kennedy was on all the talk shows the last few weeks. Because he has written a book about his own struggles with addiction and mental illness that includes the revelation that his immediate and extended family were plagued by addictions, alcoholism and mental illness.  Why this is news to anyone, I am at a loss to explain.  But what is instructive is the reaction of his family. They are angry and disappointed that Patrick has ousted the worst-kept family secret we could imagine.

Ted Kennedy’s compassion and liberal agenda were unbounded, and he was almost certainly one of the most effective United States Senator of his generation.  His ability to maintain his public equilibrium was remarkable, all the more so because of the results of his impaired judgment and morals at various points in his life.  My gratitude for his public service exist side-by-side with our sadness at how much higher he might have climbed if the Shems and Japheth’s in his life had not looked away and had not covered up his substance abuse.

And if that’s true for a man who nonetheless left a legacy of achievement, how much the more so for millions of others.

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 so many, almost all, hide…and we hide when we feel inadequate. We hide when we feel afraid. We hide because we are afraid of being judged. We hide because we judge ourselves. And all of that makes us feel so vulnerable.

But truth be told, for those dependent and for everyone we cannot fulfill ourselves, we cannot fully love or be loved unless we allow ourselves to be vulnerable and accept the vulnerability of those we love and others we see and know.

This is where Patrick Kennedy stands out. Because he appeared before a nation and showed his vulnerability. To do so takes great courage He had to be able to say, my family and I are imperfect, we have made great mistakes, we have illness. And this can be so painful…But it can lead somewhere. It can lead to healing. It can also lead to love and acceptance. To do so take compassion, but it can lead to the extension of forgiveness and the experience of deep love.

Patrick Kennedy taught me something. I felt his pain, but I realized his openness was a teacher to so many. And that is the lesson we can learn. We can learn it from Noah and Ham, We can learn it from many others…The option is to continue to cover up and hide and live with guilt and pain and self- pity…and then we resent more, or drink more and continue our decline.

But real love is Ham’s love.  Real love is Patrick Kennedy’s love. It takes courage and hope and an open heart and real love is hard.

Shabbat Shalom