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Don't Look Back - Someone Might be Gaining on You

By: Rav Michael Susman

It is difficult to imagine the monotony the travelers on Teivat Noach must have experienced during the long months of the flood. We can more easily envision the excitement and anticipation they felt as the ark settled on the top of Mount Ararat and the end of their journey was in sight. One can visualize in the mind’s eye an exhilarating, almost desperate race to fling open the window of the ark and to look out on the surroundings.

Except it didn’t happen.

Instead, the Torah tells us Noach opens the window of the Teiva and sends forth birds to scout out the landscape, first a raven and then a dove, waiting to see what sign they might bring to show that it is safe to leave the ark. Most surprisingly, and perhaps tellingly, is that Noach himself does not appear to even look out the window to survey his surroundings.  Why send a bird to do what Noach could do so easily for himself? Why doesn’t Noach just look out the window?

Rav Yehuda Cooperman asks this question in his commentary, Kedushat Peshuto Shel Mikra (Volume 1, ppg 25-27). In order to answer this question Rav Cooperman references another story where the protagonists were not allowed to look at a destroyed world. That is of course the story of Lot and his wife being saved from the destruction of S’dom. In that story we read how the angel who has come to save Lot and his family from the impending destruction of S’dom explicitly warns them not to look back, so as not to be overcome by the destruction of the city.  Rav Cooperman adopts the approach of Rashi (19:17) who explains that Lot should have shared the fate of S’dom and its inhabitants, and in fact he is only saved as a gesture to Avraham Avinu. Based on this interpretation, we can readily understand why Lot was forbidden from looking back at the destruction. How inappropriate and grotesque it would be for an individual who deserved to be destroyed to watch the destruction of others. Rav Cooperman then applies this logic to Noach as well. Just like Lot, Noach did not deserve to see the world that had been destroyed.

Rav Cooperman is not oblivious to the obvious differences in the stories.  Noach, as the Torah itself attests, was righteous. Since that was the case, why should he be forbidden to see the destruction? In order to answer this question Rav Cooperman turns to the commentary of Seforno (6:8). Seforno explains that while Noach reproached his countrymen for their immoral behavior, he failed to provide them with an alternate vision. Unlike Avraham, Moshe and Shmuel, Noach never taught his compatriots to know and love Hashem. Thus, they never had a true opportunity to do Teshuva. In other words, Noach failed to bring his generation to the point where they would have been worthy to join him on the ark. So Noach, like Lot, could not look upon the destruction of the world, but for the opposite reason. Lot could not look because he deserved to be with the people of S’dom when they were destroyed. Noach, on the other hand, could not gaze upon the destruction of the world because the people who were destroyed should have, and perhaps would have been with Noach on the ark had he only reached out to them and taught them to love Hashem. In a sense they died because of his failure, and as a result it would have been inappropriate for Noach to see their destruction.

This entire analysis is predicated on accepting Rashi’s explanation as to why Lot was prohibited from looking back at the destruction of S’dom. However, there are other approaches as well. Might we be able to suggest a different connection between Noah and Lot if we adopt a different explanation for why Lot was prohibited from looking back?

Ralbag suggests a more prosaic reason as to why Lot was instructed not to look back. With destruction looming over the city and its surroundings, speed was of the essence. Yet Lot seems frozen in place, indecisive  and overwhelmed by events. Thus the angels rush him along, telling him not to look back as doing so will only further slow his flight.

Abarbanel offers a third reason as to why Lot was told not to look back. Lot had chosen to move to S’dom for materialistic reasons and had in fact amassed great wealth. All of that was now being left behind. Moreover, his married daughters also stayed behind with their husbands, so they too would be lost. The angels were telling Lot - Don't look back, everything you had is gone. You are escaping with your life and nothing else. 

Essentially, the angels were instructing Lot to accept his fate, and Lot in fact does so. He never asks for anything else, only that his life should be saved. This is in contrast to his wife, who does look back and dies in identical fashion to the destruction of the city as a result. His wife was unable to let go, to accept that everything she had was gone. As a result, she looks back and is turned into a pillar of salt.

Based on this insight of Abarbanel I would like to suggest a different answer to Rav Cooperman’s question.  Both Noach and Lot are refugees from worlds which have brought destruction upon themselves. Once the wave of destruction has passed, both will be required to rebuild their lives and their worlds. In order to do so they must first accept that the world that they have left behind no longer exists and only then can they begin to move forward and rebuild. This message is communicated through the idea of not looking back at what was but rather at looking ahead to what could be.

Ultimately neither succeed. Lot, as we learn from the subsequent passukim, sinks into incestuous relationships with his daughters. Convinced that they are the lone survivors of a cataclysmic event, Lot’s daughters inebriate him and then seduce him. This is hardly an auspicious way to begin anew and we know that Amon and Moav, the nations that emerge from these unions, are far from paradigms of righteousness.

And what of Noach? Immediately after emerging from the teiva Noach plants a vineyard and then proceeds to drink himself into a stupor. Without addressing the parallels of Lot and Noach both getting drunk and the sexual consequences in both cases, I believe that Noach’s choice of wine grapes as his first crop and therefore his first step towards rebuilding betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the role he needs to play in the rebuilding of the world. Noach was an agricultural wizard (see Ralbag on 6:21) and surely his skills would be a critical importance in rebuilding the world, hence the way he chose to employ those skills is instructive. He plants a vineyard. Rashi (9:20), paraphrasing the Midrash (Midrash Rabba 36) notes that Noach made himself “chullin”. Instead, says Rashi, Noach should have planted something else. The actual text of the Midrash is more specific. “Of everything that Noach could have planted first, he chooses a vineyard?” asks the Midrash almost incredulously.

The Silberman translation of Rashi suggests that the word chullin, which literally means profane, should be understood as “degraded”, meaning that Noach degraded himself by planting a vineyard. But I would suggest that the Midrash and Rashi chose the word Chullin very carefully.  Because what is the opposite of Chol if not Kadosh?  Leaving the ark, Noach has the unique opportunity to rebuild a world which had been degraded and corrupted to the point where it had to be destroyed. But instead of building something Kadosh he instead slips into the same template of the world he had left behind. Chullin. Profane, without any redeeming holiness. 

Hashem says to Noach and Lot, don’t look back at what was destroyed, it is gone, irredeemable.  What is important is to look ahead and to build something better. They fail to rise to the challenge. But the exhortation to rise to future challenges calls to us. Is this the best we can do? Can we not do better? 

 

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