Musée des Beaux-Arts, Besançon
Giovanni Bellini, ‘Drunkenness of Noah,’ circa 1515Musée des Beaux-Arts, Besançon
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Drinking After the Apocalypse

What Genesis teaches us about rebuilding after a catastrophic event

Lisa J. Wise
December 03, 2021
Musée des Beaux-Arts, Besançon
Giovanni Bellini, 'Drunkenness of Noah,' circa 1515Musée des Beaux-Arts, Besançon

Late at night in the kitchen, while I’m packing up leftover lasagna, the tall, dark, handsome bottle of Godiva chocolate liqueur winks at me from the back of the fridge. It never used to try this move in the past. But desperate times call for desperate measures. Now is the perfect global moment for escape. We all yearn to disconnect.

During this prolonged pandemic, it makes perfect sense that we crave comfort food, cozy sweatpants, Netflix binges, and doorstep deliveries while cradling our cellphones at night. We’ve also increased our indulgence in a few cocktails. How else to adapt to an altered reality? Thankfully, the Torah offers concrete advice about how not to navigate a fallen world—advice that resonates today as we contemplate emerging from our pandemic cocoons.

The Book of Genesis offers insight on two different postapocalyptic awakenings. Noah and Lot each witness the destruction of their world and face the uncertainty of rebuilding. In response, they both drink copious amounts of wine, fall deeply asleep, experience sexual impropriety, and either remember nothing the next morning (Lot) or face consequences through curses (Noah).

Noah got the job done. He safely reached dry land, personally responsible for the perpetuation of mankind and the entire animal kingdom (sorry, unicorns). But like so many of us who have navigated crisis, only in the quiet aftermath—when the thrum of routine life and the relief of safety resume—do we finally feel the weight of the burden and begin to psychically unravel. Noah’s first order of business: Savor a nice pairing with dinner. Then toss back a few more for the road. That’s when trouble began.

And Noah the husbandman began, and planted a vineyard. And he drank of the wine, and was drunken; and he was uncovered within his tent. And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brethren without. And Shem and Japheth took a garment, and laid it upon both their shoulders, and went backward, and covered the nakedness of their father; and their faces were backward, and they saw not their father’s nakedness. And Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his youngest son had done unto him. (Genesis 9:20-24)

Ten chapters later, deja vu. Sodom is destroyed after Lot escapes with his family semi-intact. Lot is initially hesitant to leave home despite warnings of impending destruction, and his palpable fear continues even after salvation. Alone in the world, with a calcified wife, we sense his anxiety and so do his daughters. Things do not look good. Taking matters into their own hands, his daughters panic and devise a plan to repopulate the world with his seed. Wine is once again used as a reliable portal for misplaced intentions.

But his wife looked back from behind him, and she became a pillar of salt. … And Lot went up out of Zoar, and dwelt in the mountain, and his two daughters with him; for he feared to dwell in Zoar. … And the first-born said unto the younger: “Our father is old, and there is not a man in the earth to come in unto us after the manner of all the earth. Come, let us make our father drink wine, and we will lie with him, that we may preserve seed of our father.” … Thus were both the daughters of Lot with child by their father. (Genesis 19:26-36)

Reading both tales, we can appreciate the need for a stiff drink. After witnessing devastation, there’s an understandable desire to escape and numb ourselves from harsh realities. Enjoying a moment of inebriated release, in an attempt to temporarily forget our troubles, seems innocent enough. But the Bible goes a step further to call out sexually immodest behavior. The heartbreaking image of fathers lying naked before their children holds a particularly visceral shame. This double-take taboo is bookended, in both stories, by references to “looking backward.”

Why is the backward glance mentioned three distinct times? Lot’s wife steals a peek back home in blatant violation of the angels’ explicit instruction: Don’t look over your shoulder. In her farewell moment—perhaps with regret, longing for the past, or second-guessing resurfacing—she embraced her own fatal hesitation. Anyone who has left home for good knows the power of one last look. Not this time, the angels warned. Now was the time to plan ahead, plant future seeds and let go of a failed, flawed past. The key takeaway: When creating a new world from scratch, don’t get stuck looking back to tortured history. Keep your eyes forward.

Two of Noah’s sons take this lesson to heart. They refuse to look directly at the fallout from destruction. After youngest son Ham’s callous mockery, his older brothers contort their bodies and crane their necks to shield their eyes from witnessing their father’s immoral decline. Twice we are told that they approach walking backward, glancing away to preserve their father’s dignity and avoid having parental nakedness seared into their consciousness. They uphold decency despite being surrounded by devastation. Looking away from present calamity, they draw strength and wisdom from past morals and old truths. Understanding their stance at the crossroads of history, they choose to restore respectability and honor their father, thus curating new world order. The key takeaway: When creating a world from scratch, don’t wallow in the depths of present despair or get mired in hopelessness. Get busy building a promising future.

Genesis describes our natural tendency to embrace excessive drinking in the aftermath of global devastation. So does current research. In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, a Johns Hopkins and University of Maryland-Baltimore survey found that 60.14% of participants reported drinking more alcohol after March 1, 2020, and 45% reported increased stress as a reason for increased drinking. After our last pandemic—the Spanish flu of 1918—the magnitude of release and relief ignited the Roaring ’20s, featuring alcohol-fueled celebrations and Great Gatsby-esque indulgences. As we struggle to renegotiate normalcy during our lingering pandemic, pundits predict that once we can safely shed our masks, we’ll all want to cut loose and party recklessly. Which part of history will we repeat?

After my brother’s bar mitzvah in 1971, leftover bottles of liquor sat neglected on the bottom shelf of our dining room’s bar cart for 20 years. Dusting off the bottles for the occasional l’chaim, hardly a splash was ever missing afterward. But times have changed. Enjoying a hearty l’chaim is now more prevalent in our modern Orthodox communities. Scotch tastings are a legit draw for many who come to shul on Shabbat morning with thirsty souls seeking connection. It is comforting to share a drink with cohorts and unwind from the maddening workweek. Isn’t that what the seventh day of rest is all about? Well, yes and no. But mostly no.

Each week the Haftorah gets left at the altar as folks shuffle out en masse during its opening notes. Whispers of whiskey clinking in glasses beckon seductively from the Kiddush Club. Convivial members pour and soar while Jeremiah pitifully begs to all walking out that sanctuary door: And they have turned unto Me the back, and not the face. (32:33) Parents carefully clock how much alcohol their teenagers are witnessing grown-ups consume on synagogue premises. Preaching about moderation is meaningless when the glamour of excess is on full display.

Now is the time for us all to turn around and listen. Hard work lies ahead. The task of rebuilding new worlds will require steady hands and attentive hearts. We may feel a little numb, desperate for release and desirous of escape. Fear of apocalyptic chaos is utterly exhausting. These days, hope is the thing with feathers that often flies away without a trace or gets lost in unopened Amazon boxes by our front door. But envisioning and bringing to fruition a more hopeful future for the next generation demands absolute presence and dedicated focus. The tantalizing lure of fantasy escapism is our worst enemy as a critical choice lies before us.

What legacy will we leave behind? The Talmud (Taanit 23a) teaches us the precious value of planting trees whose fruit we will not live to see. Knowing that our children’s children will benefit from the harvest is reward enough. With that belief, I trust we won’t mirror the inherited fear of Lot’s family, paralyzed by anxious uncertainty about their sketchy future. Instead, we’ll follow Noah’s family, leading with clarity of vision and the courage of conviction. We will look hopefully toward a more promising future. Because the children are watching. Wide-eyed, innocent, waiting to be vaccinated, they clock our every reaction, follow our every step, count our every sip.

So, when planting those trees for the next generation, let’s minimize the number of vineyards. Or at the very least, banish that bewitching Godiva liqueur bottle to the bottom of the bar cart.

Lisa J. Wise is working on an essay collection about living with third-generation lymphoma and volunteering to be Patient No. 1 in a brand-new experimental clinical trial.

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