“We say grace, we say ma’am if you ain’t into that we don’t give a…” from the song “A Country Boy Can Survive” by Hank Williams Jr.
Certain awkward moments tend to remain etched on to your brain for the rest your life. I was probably 11 or 12 at the time. Playing at a friend’s house one late afternoon when his parents asked me to stay for dinner. After the requisite phone call home ( rotary wall phone no less), we sat down to eat. Immediately, simultaneously, in an almost choreographed manner, my friend, his siblings and mom closed their eyes and put their hands together in the classic praying position. I knew they were hard-core Baptists so this did not suprise me. What I didn’t expect was my friend’s father to look over at me and say “Would you please lead us in grace?” Too polite to say no, despite being immediately anxious as a Jewish kid surrounded by goyim, I did a quick mental shuffle to try and come up with something to say on the spot.
Now, I was familiar with the concept of saying grace from watching reruns of Andy Griffith or Little House on the Prairie. My impression from watching these shows was that grace was a somewhat freestyle Toastmasters type thing; as long as you said something that sounded nice (possibly in rhyme) and thanked either “our father” or “our Lord” you were probably OK.
In an almost free association I rattled off something that any kid that went to any sort of Jewish camp of any denomination could probably say in their sleep… “WE GIVE THANKS TO G-D FOR BREAD..OUR VOICES RISE IN SONG TOGETHER AS OUR JOYFUL PRAYER IS SAID”.
They just ate it up- I think the sister even wrote it down. In full disclosure I don’t think I ever told them it was plagiarized.
As much as the word “grace” has religious meaning among Baptists and country music stars, it’s somewhat enigmatic when viewed through a Jewish lens.
In this week’s Parsha, Noach is described to be the only person righteous enough to save the entire world from destruction.
The description of that generation is one of חמס- robbery, where the inhabitants of the world were described as exceedingly wicked.
Hashem determines that there is no potential for redemption and therefore sets in motion the Flood in order to cleanse the earth from this desolation. Yet Noah is recognized as a person worth saving and re-populating the earth with his descendants. What is it about him that makes him the savior of human life on earth? We know that he “walked with G-d” but the description depicting the reason for Noach’s ability to avert total destruction is minimal at best- וְנֹ֕חַ מָ֥צָא חֵ֖ן בְּעֵינֵ֥י יְהוָה (פ
“But Noah found Grace with the LORD”.
What does ״ חן״ chayn or grace mean? Later on in the Torah in Parsha Miketz, we’ll encounter this phrase again when it comes to describing the personality of Yosef. Again the term חן /chayn is used. Here it’s commonly translated as “charisma” or “charm” when describing his dealings with Egyptian officials or the general populace.
So what does grace mean in the context of Noah or in general?
We see Noah described as a “Tzaddik bdorof”, A righteous man in his generation. At first blush this seems to be praise for Noah. However, commentators see this this on some level as a kind of left-handed compliment. It is to say that perhaps in a different generation such as that of Abraham, Noah would not of been so impressive.
The Rednecker Rav views this a little differently.
A very close friend of mine who’s insights about human nature in general and New Yorkers in specific are always spot on pointed this out some years ago. To wit, he feels that everyone has a certain yardstick by which they are measured by in G-Ds estimation. Each person has a “tafkid”, an objective to accomplish while on this earth. It could be a nominal observance of Judaism such as going to shul twice a year for some. For others it is much greater such as finding a cure for polio or starting a charity.
From this point of view, whether one would succeed in another generation is irrelevant. Their level of success is judged by the particular circumstances they live in.
Noah, as we know, goes on to unfortunately embark on a downhill course after the flood ends. He debases himself after becoming drunk from the vineyard he planted. Additionally he fathered Ham, the forerunner of the Cannanite nation, the arch enemies of the Jewish nation.
Does that change the concept of Noah having grace?
Not at all, I would argue.
We know that Noah also had another child, Shem, the progenitor of the Semite nation, ie the Jewish people.
I think the take-home message for the parsha is that we all have potential to gain Hashems favor or grace, each in our own way. Although we may stumble and not be always stay on track, we can find comfort that Hashem gives us each our own way to find “grace” and there fore a purposeful life. (Even without country music)