This week’s Torah portion is Noah. We are told that Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation. (Genesis 6:9) The rabbis of the Talmud debate the meaning of the qualifier “in his generation.” On the one hand, it can mean that he was better than everyone else, but since the whole world was wicked and deserving of being destroyed, it isn’t that impressive. On the other hand, it could mean that in spite of the depravity of his peers, he was still an outstanding individual. That’s no small feat; we all know how hard it is to make good decisions when surrounded by friends making bad choices. We want to be accepted, we want to fit in, we want to be a part of things even when those things are not right and we know it.
When we think of Noah and the ark, we think of the animals coming two by two and 40 days and 40 nights of flooding rain. Most people are less familiar with what happened afterwards. For those of you who have not read your Bible for a while, Noah plants a vineyard, makes some wine, and gets drunk. Not exactly the vision of our hero that we like to bring to mind. His behavior while inebriated is less than exemplary, and it leads to a breakdown in his family structure.
Sadly, today we know well how destructive drinking can be not only to the individual but to the family and to the community. For many years the accepted wisdom was that drinking was not a problem in the Jewish community. The Jewish community was slow to accept that alcoholism exists in our ranks, but now we know that it does. We are not immune to the peer pressure that influences us to make bad decisions. We can succumb to addictions the same as any other religious or ethnic or cultural group. However, the first step in solving a problem is recognizing that it exists in the first place.
Even today, it is not easy to overcome the stigma of alcoholism in the Jewish community. Besides not wanting to admit to ourselves that we have a problem, our immediate and our extended families think it can’t happen to us. The Jewish community does not like to acknowledge that problems like alcoholism exist in our midst. But over time, we have worked to change things, to be more open and accepting.
Today there are so many community resources to assist one with an addiction within the Jewish community beyond what exists in society at large. First of all, one can turn to one’s rabbi, who we hope will have educated him/herself to be in a position to provide support and help both the individual and the family to get the help that they need. No longer do we try to hide from the truth and pretend that it is not so. We have finally, painfully, learned the importance of acknowledging and dealing with the problem. Problems don’t just go away on their own; you have to work at them to resolve them.
Beyond the rabbi/synagogue, within the Jewish community we have institutions like Jewish Family Service (JFS). JFS provides counseling services to help with an array of issues that challenge us in life. There are two JFS centers in our community – one in Teaneck and one in Wayne. Both have qualified staff available to help. Beyond JFS there is also JACS – Jewish Alcoholics, Chemically Dependent Persons, and Significant Others – an Alcoholics Anonymous for Jews. AA is a tremendous program, but it does have a spiritual component, and some Jews feel more comfortable in a JACS setting than in a regular AA meeting. Of course, help can be found beyond the bounds of the Jewish community at AA, Al-Anon, Alateen, and other groups dedicated to assisting those struggling with alcohol addiction.
Alcohol is a chemical, chemicals can be addictive, Jews are not immune, and so we need to be both vigilant and supportive. We need to educate ourselves to the signs and symptoms of alcoholism and we need to be there for the benefit of anyone and everyone trying to overcome their addiction. Overcoming the obstacles that are presented to us in life is never easy, but with the help of family, friends, and community, working together, so much can be accomplished.
So when we read Parshat Noah and we encounter the rainbow, remember that it is a promise of a better tomorrow. It has its own special blessing, “Praised are You, Lord our God, Sovereign of the universe who remembers the Covenant, is faithful to it, and keeps promises.” Let us all promise to do what we can to help one another!