My teacher, Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik זצ”ל used to observe that profound insights can be found by looking in the most out of the way places. Parshat Noach provides a case in point. Both the classical commentators and, certainly, contemporary teachers focus heavily on the character of Noach (in contrast to Abraham), the Flood Story itself, the Tower of Babel and the start of Abraham’s career. There are, however, other passages that deserve greater attention, and provide great contemporary insight.
After Noah and his family leave the ark, and try to get on with their lives, the Torah tells us of a very disturbing, if enigmatic event (Gen. 9, 20-28):
And Noah the farmer began, and planted a vineyard. And he drank from the wine, and got drunk; and he became exposed in his tent. And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father’s nakedness, and told his two brothers who were outside. And Shem and Yefet took a garment, and laid it upon their shoulders, and went in backwards, and covered their father’s nakedness; and they were looking backward and did not see their father’s nakedness. And Noah awoke from his wine, and realized what his youngest son had done to him. And he said: Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be to his brethren. And he said: Blessed be the Lord, the God of Shem; and let Canaan be his servant. May God enlarge Yefet, and may he shall dwell in the tents of Shem; and let Canaan be his servant.
The story defies comprehension. Why do we need to know that Noah got drunk? What did Ham do that merited such an extreme reaction by his father (including a curse on his progeny, ie Noah’s own grandson)? What was it about Shem and Yefet’s action that deserved so effusive a blessing? Finally, why was Yefet subordinated to Shem?
I am convinced that the key to this story is to see it against a reaction to the Flood. Consider the circumstances. Noah and his family had survived, while their entire world had been destroyed. They were now, moreover, commanded by God to reconstruct an entire society, afresh. Based upon what we know of the psychology of the survivors of all types of cataclysms, Noah and his family must have been profoundly burdened by feelings of survivor’s guilt, cultural disorientation and uncertainty as to precisely what the proper response to the Flood (its causes and its results) should be. Viewed that way, with a little help from Hazal, each of the various figures represents a different response to the Flood and its aftermath.
Noah, apparently, simply could not cope with surviving, with his loss or with his challenge. He went, as the Midrash states (Tanhuma [Buber], 58, 20), from walking with God to being ‘a man of the soil,’ earthy, vulgar and bereft of vision. He solace solace in the bottle, and was exposed. Noah’s response to surviving was to seek to escape.
Ham’s reaction to Noah’s state was to see ‘his father’s nakedness.’ What does that mean? It could mean that he simply saw the old man sprawled exposed in his tent. (Apparently, that was offense enough, considering how his brothers eventually covered their father.) He was obviously not horrified by the sight, otherwise he would have covered him up. Instead, he ran to tell his brothers, rather like a bratty child with a hot piece of naughty information to convey. According to this line of interpretation, Ham lost respect for his father, therein lay his sin. Hazal, on the other hand, assumed that ‘seeing his nakedness’ was a euphemism for something more sinister. They offered two opinions on that count (Rashi, verse 22): that he either castrated him or raped him. Both possibilities are extensions of a fundamental breakdown of morality and authority that Ham felt upon seeing his father’s abdication, and perhaps in a post-Deluge world. Castration would be an expression of anger at Noah’s bringing children into a corrupt world that could so easily be destroyed. Raping his father would indicate not only violence and anger, but a breakdown of all moral taboos and boundaries. In a sense, it would connect Ham with the sin of the generation that had just been destroyed; a generation that was marked by moral break down. In a postdiluvian world, all rules were off and anything goes.
Shem and Yefet responded very differently to their father’s predicament. Despite Noah’s self-abasement, he remained their father and deserved not only his dignity but the deference of his sons. So they covered him up, without violating his dignity or having their own reverence for him affected by viewing him in his exposed state. The brothers were, apparently, up to the challenge of putting the past behind them and building a new society on the basis of clear moral and axiological lines of conduct. That is why they were so effusively blessed by Noah. Ham, on the other hand, had acted in a bestial fashion, so that the only future he (or his progeny) could have was by others being a beast of burden, a slave. (The role of Canaan, albeit, is unclear).
One question remains. Why was Yefet told that he would ‘dwell in the tents of Shem.’ Perhaps, because he was younger. However, both medieval and modern interpreters saw things a bit differently. Yefet, according to the Bible, was the ancestor of Greece while Shem was a progenitor of the Jewish People. In rabbinic tradition, Yefet represented the glories of Greek art and science, architecture and philosophy. Shem, on the other hand, was recalled as the archetype of the servant of God. In that light, Noah’s blessing was that all the creativity of Yefet was endorsed and valued, so long as it was enveloped in Shem’s a priori commitment to God. Such an insight squares very well with the nature of Graeco-Roman civilization, which was ultimately based on self-worship. As the distinguished classicist, Edith Hamilton once wrote (in her book Mythology, page 16), the ‘Greeks made their gods in their own image.’
We, in the West, also live in a post-Flood world. The twentieth century was deluged with wars and destruction greater in magnitude than anything mankind had ever known. The incomparable nadir, of course, was the Shoah. In the wake of this era of cataclysms, man was forced to confront his survival and to rebuild the world. His responses to this circumstance have been precisely those that marked Noah and his family.
Some, like Noah, sought and seek to escape through chemicals, mystical withdrawal, retreat into Indian religions or pure self-indulgence. Others, like Ham, became and become moral relativists. They reject any and all authority and tradition. Some despair of any future for mankind. Others become totally self-indulgent, maintaining that there can be no binding values or norms in the era ‘after.’ Others, as prefigured by Hazal’s view of Yefet, believe in Man and his capacity, by himself and on the basis of his own reason and creativity. This, as we’ve seen, can easily lead to arrogant self-worship and narcissism. Still others, Shem like, abdicate their personalities, their reason and creativity, in favor of a superficial form of fundamentalist religiosity which saves them from thinking or confronting the world in which they live.
By bidding Yefet to dwell in the tents of Shem, the Torah demands that man live a life of creative tension and engagement. He must maximize his talents, engage the world critically, build, create, and not withdraw. At the same time, he is bidden to recognize his limitations. He is not all-knowing, and his explorations of science and art, philosophy and history, will always lead him to more questions and fewer answers. At the end of the day, Yefet will thrive if he is enveloped in the humbling awareness that he was created in the image of One who is greater than he, who expects greatness of him, and not the other way around.