Noah's Graceless Masculinity

Oct. 31, 2019

By Michael Moskowitz and Seth Marnin

Rabbi Moskowitz is going to be joining Brandeis Hillel for a conversation around allyship as spiritual practice, and the week’s parsha. Details available here.

Editor’s note: This blog post is one in an occasional series that will explore rabbinic teachings of positive masculinity.

Noah's arc is long — he lived 950 years. Unfortunately, his arc bends away from grace. Parshat Bereishit concludes and Parshat Noach opens with Noah at his high point. He found favor in the eyes of G-d (Gen. 6:8), he was a "righteous" man… who "walked with G-d." (Gen. 6:9). But just midway through the parsha, Noah tumbles from that exalted perch, becoming intoxicated and unclothed. (Gen. 9:20).

Our rabbis teach that the 13 words in the first verse of Parshat Noach correspond to the age of bar mitzvah, the 13 years of becoming a man. By exploring parshat Noach and examining how Noah fell from grace and righteousness, perhaps we can find insight into how to better advance lessons of positive or healthy masculinity.

The Hebrew word for grace, חן chein, first appears in the Torah at the conclusion of Breisheit when distinguishing Noah from the wickedness of his generation: "But Noah found grace in the eyes of Hashem." (Gen. 6:8). It is not coincidental that the words "Noah" and "chein" are comprised of the same two letters, “נ” and “ח,” just in a different order. It is foreshadowing and teaching, in part, that Noah was going in the wrong direction.

Parshat Noach begins with "These are the offspring of Noah — Noah was a righteous man, consistent in his generations; Noah walked with G-d." (Gen. 6:9). This teaches us that the primary progeny of the righteous are their good actions. It was Noah's laudable behavior, particularly in contrast to the moral corruption of his time, that allowed him to find grace in the eyes of G-d. For the 10 generations from Adam until Noah, no one acted in a way that was received gracefully by G-d. And as long as he continued the work of recalibrating his behavior, he was able to maintain this elevated position.

Here and throughout scripture, the verb "find" is associated with grace. It is a process of revealing that which was or is hidden. But unlike learning the whereabouts of a lost object, this is a relational "finding" where one learns they possess an attribute — in this case grace — in relation to another. And it is a dynamic state or process rather than a finite or static state.

Noah's selfish pursuits continue when he emerges from the ark after the flood. He encounters a new world. Rather than check in to understand the environment, to see how he can make it better, he instead conducted himself in a selfish way. He provided for his own needs, followed his desires. He planted grapes so that he could have wine as opposed to something more beneficial for the world. Instead of making himself into a holy vessel of the Divine, he indulged in the void and debased himself.

This provides us with an opportunity to think about ways to become — and continue to be — a man while remaining righteous and not falling from grace. It is essential that we learn to pay attention to and understand the world around us, to appreciate how our actions impact those around us, and to grow and evolve over time. We cannot presume to know how we impact others because we are not the arbiters of how our actions are received. Instead we must constantly check in, listen and modify our behaviors in response to what we learn.

It takes effort, humility and a commitment to expand beyond the dismissive limits of "boys will be boys" to make real progress in the right direction. In our tradition, seven represents the natural order of things and seven multiplied by itself, 49, speaks to the greatest expression of that exercise. The space beyond theses points, eight and 50, are transcendent moves from the physical to the supernatural like chanukah and brit milah (eight days) and the giving of the Torah, on the 50th. Fifty-eight is also the numerical value of Noah's name.

After Noah's failure, he doesn't throw himself back into the struggle for a more equitable world. He doesn't see his setbacks as an opportunity for growth or self-reflection. He learns no lessons, fails to grow and falls from grace. Our Rabbis teach that had he lived in the generation of Abraham, Noah would not be considered noteworthy. Indeed they overlap for 58 years, but we hear nothing of Noah during that period. His name reminds us that when men of power and privilege fail to channel themselves for the betterment of humanity, when they fail to act as role models, they are not worthy of praise.

We read this story at the beginning of the new year, at the very beginning of the Torah, to remind ourselves of the human capacity to adapt and renew. It creates space to recognize the value and importance of understanding the ways in which our behavior impacts and influences others. As our world continues to evolve, we must feel both empowered and responsible not only to construct our own new beginnings but to never lose sight of how our words and deeds are experienced by others. We must affirmatively seek feedback and participate in that dynamic process for the arcs of our lives to bend toward and seek out grace.

Mike MoskowitzRabbi Mike Moskowitz is a Scholar-in-Residence in Trans and Queer Jewish Studies at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in New York. (Pronouns: He/Him)

Seth M. Marnin is an attorney, educator, civil rights advocate, pursuer of justice and chair of Keshet’s board of directors. (Pronouns: He/Him)