Parshat Noach – The Curse of Canaan

From an allegorical point of view, Noach is an archetype, a representation of our desire to take a rest from the challenges of life. When his father Lamekh names him, he says “This-one shall give us rest (comfort) from our doings and from the toil of our hands…” There is no Semitic root L.M.K. that explains Lamekh’s name. Based upon allegorical context, the best translation can be derived from L’ (ל) + MaaKh (מך) meaning “one regarded as lowly.” In the simplest terms, Noach means rest, something we all must do when we feel lowly. However, an examination of related Hebrew roots1 leads to the conclusion that its essential meaning is to lean – both forward and downward. Therefore, the allegorical meaning of Noach is “one’s intending to lean into experience after taking a rest.”

This tendency to lean in toward experience is reflected in the names of his sons:
Shaem (שם) one’s putting oneself forth, toward experience;
Cham (חם) one’s making observations and becoming emotionally heated;
Yephet (יפת) one’s being open to persuasion.2

These archetypes represent behaviors that may lead a person to engage life experience, but they do not ensure such engagement. However, G-d’s goal is for humanity to live life and to do so one must engage life experiences. To that end, Noach is instructed to build an ark, a TaeBhaH (תבה). Although in Hebrew words of this root are rare, Tav-Baet (ת-ב) roots in Semitic are related to Shin-Baet (ש-ב) roots in Hebrew. Essentially, they mean to settle back, down or into. Therefore, the ark is a metaphor for Noach’s settling into experience. In order to assist him in this endeavor, G-d creates a flood (MaBuL – מבול),3 an overture of stirring experience to encourage him. After forty days of rain, Noach sends forth a raven and then a dove to see if the waters had receded. The word for raven (\oRaeBh – עורב)4 literally means “one who exhibits bravery” whereas the word for dove (YoNaH – יונה)5 literally means “one who asserts himself in a way that is wavering.” These birds further depict Noach’s struggles to lean in so as to engage experience.

After Noach and his family leave the ark, he plants a vineyard, becomes drunk and exposes himself. Rather than assist his father, his son Cham reports his nakedness to his brothers. But Shaem and Yephet take a garment and walking backwards, cover their father’s nakedness. Unexpectedly, upon awakening Noach curses Cham’s son Canaan instead of Cham. However curious, the story does seem to set up this mis-imputation of blame by twice describing Cham as the father of Canaan. The root KaNa\ (כנע) from which Canaan is derived means to subdue or oppress. But a comparison with related roots such as KaNaS (כנס to enter), KaNaPh (כנף wing, (what is drawn in)), KaNaN (כנן to wind around), and KineReT (כנרת the lake, ?drawn into) suggest that literally it means to draw in upon. So Canaan allegorically means one’s being subdued by the many things drawing in from experience. Therefore, Noach is correct. The problem is not of making observations and becoming heated about it, but rather of then becoming subdued by the many things drawing in from experience. This is consistent with the general theme of Noach’s story. He was a person who needed to take a rest from life’s toils and he required overtures of stirring experience to push him toward engaging experience. Despite his exhibiting bravery, he nevertheless asserts himself in a way that is wavering.

The narrative continues:ויחל נח איש האדמה ויטע כרם וישת מן היין וישכר ויתגל בתוך אהלה “And Noach was proceeding, a man of the ground, such that he was planting a vineyard. And he was drinking from the wine and was becoming drunk. And he was revealing himself in the midst of his tent.” When considering the meaning of Noach and his son’s names, it is apparent that they are on the verge of taking action, but not truly engaged with experience. Allegorically, Noach’s actions are cerebral rather than physical and the words for ground (/aDaMah – אדמה) and for tent (/oHaeL – אוהל) symbolize this. The word /aDaMah (ground – אדמה) literally means “absorptive surface” and so metaphorically it means to be mentally absorbed with experience.6 The allegorical meaning for the word /oHaeL(tent – אוהל) comes from the verb of the same root in Arabic meaning to be familiar. Furthermore, from the Arabic, the verb used here to mean “to plant” also means to explain something or to go into something deeply. So as a person who wants to lean into experience, Noach is mentally absorbed with experience, becoming familiar with what is available to him and he is deeply exploring what has been piled up from experience (כרם).6

Unfortunately, through this process of being mentally absorbed and becoming familiar with experience, he aligns with what is overwhelming of experience (drinks wine). In the movie Airplane, the captain is said to have a drinking problem; he is unable to align his mouth with the glass, thus pouring his drink repeatedly onto his shirt. The Hebrew verb “to drink” (ShaTaH – שתה) essentially has the same meaning. It evolved by prefixing the letter shin to the verb meaning to come into alignment with something (/aTaH – אתה). The Hebrew word for wine is yayin (יין). This word evolved from the root YaWaN (יון) which means what is overbearing, which in turn evolved from the root YaNaH which in some entries means threatening (ex. a threatening sword). As a consequence of drinking the wine, he becomes drunk and reveals himself. This has the allegorical meaning of becoming hedged in and wallowing. The word for drunk (ShaKaR – שכר) evolved from ShooKh (שוך – to cordon off), and SooKh (שוך – to hedge in) and is related to SaKhaR, (שכר – to dam in). The word yitgal translated as “he was revealing himself” is related to the verb GaLaH (גלה – to reveal), but literally means “to roll out.” It is also related to verbs such as GalGael (גלגל – to roll, whirl) and GaLaL (גלל – to roll, to roll up, to wallow).

As the archetype that makes observations and becomes heated up, Cham observes this shame, “the shame of his father.” The Hebrew word for naked (\aRWaH – ערוה) also means shame and the word for father (אב – /aBh) comes from the verb /aBhaH (אבה) meaning to give forth of oneself. Hence the phrase, ערות אביו (nakedness of his father) allegorically means the shame of his way of giving forth of himself to experience.” There are many times in our lives where the act of observing can lead to an overwhelming emotional reaction that can feel paralyzing. This is the proverbial deer in the headlights reaction. Cham, the father of Canaan, one’s observing and becoming emotionally heated – the father of being subdued by the many things drawing in from experience, is precisely this archetype. Nevertheless, there are ways of overcoming and prevailing over such feeling of paralysis. In their putting a cloak upon their shoulders and covering over their father’s shame, both Shaem (one’s putting oneself forth – toward experience) and YePhet (one’s being open to persuasion) act as catalysts that can move a person away from paralysis and toward an ability to take action. The word for garment is SiMLah (שמלה) from the verb SyM (שים – to put, place). It represents what is put forth and available in experience for the person to engage. The verb related to the word for shoulder (SheKheM – שכם) means “to make a sustained effort” or as we say in English, to put one’s shoulder into something. By taking upon one’s shoulder something being imposed from experience, they are able to cover over “the shame of their way of giving forth to experience.”

When Noach awakens, he acknowledges “what his small son had done to him.” This description seems odd and out of place, because, by repeatedly placing Cham’s name between those of his brothers, the text implies that Cham is the middle child, not the small one. Nevertheless, any given word or phrase in the allegorical translation refers only to itself; it does not refer to something that was said somewhere else in the text. For example, in this sentence where it says, “his son, the small one,” the allegorical meanings of these words refer only to those concepts and not to any particular child, with a particular given name. The word for small (QaTaN – קטן) literally means “the one shriveled or cut back.” The allegory is saying that he was acknowledging his behavior of shriveling away from and cutting back from experience. This is followed with “cursed is Canaan” for it is the act of being subdued by the things that draw in from experience that led to his shriveling away from taking action.

Three times, the text refers to Canaan as a servant or slave, an \eBheD (עבד). This root evolved from aBhaD (אבד), to be lost, in that one who is made into a slave is lost to their community and family. Over time, as a Semitic root, the verb \aBhaD evolved to encompass similar concepts such as service, devotion, worship and work. In this case, a person who is subdued by the things drawing in from experience, who shrivels away from taking action, is lost in his being mentally devoted to experience, yet uncertain as to the direction to pursue.

The first instance says: עבד עבדים יהיה לאחיו A slave of slaves shall he be to his brothers. The word brother (/aCh – אח) most probably derives from the Semitic root ChaWaH (חוה) which in Arabic means to join someone. Even though the letter chet in these words are of the uvular-velar type, this verb probably evolved from the verb HhaYaH (חיה – to live). However, there is another, unrelated verb HhaWaH (חוה) meaning to point out and instruct. It is from this verb that the allegorical meaning of the word for brother (/aCh – אח) is derived. Therefore, one who is subdued by the many things drawing inward of experience is one lost in his being mentally devoted with regard to the many things in experience that are pointing the way for him. There are simply too many choices and he feels subdued by them.

The last two sentences in which Canaan is said to be a slave both end in the phrase ויהי כנען עבד למו “And Canaan shall be a slave to him (it).” The first of these phrases makes reference to haShem, which is the aspect of G-d that brings forth existence; to Elohim, the aspect of G-d that provides guidance in experience; and to his brother Shaem, the ability to put oneself forth toward experience. The allegory of the phrase ברוך יהוה אלהי שם “Blessed is haShem, the G-d of Shaem” is “Abundant7 is G-d’s bringing forth of experience, G-d’s guidance provided8 to a person who puts himself forth toward experience.” The key to success in life is engagement. The opportunities provided in life are abundant, but so many of us so often allow our fears and insecurities to get in the way. How exciting it is to see, as Cham, all that life has to offer and how awful is it to be cursed by being as a deer in the headlights. But the story of Noach is not a story of our failures. It is the story of our unceasing potential. Everyone needs to take a break sometime, to recharge our batteries and to gain a fresh perspective so that when we are ready, we can lean in. The allegory of the phrase: יפת אלהים ליפת וישכן באהלי שם “G-d shall be persuasive for Yephet that he shall dwell in the tents of Shaem” is “Elohim, G-d’s guidance being presented in experience, shall open us up to being persuaded. So that we may dwell with acts of becoming familiar (with the opportunities at our disposal) as a result of one’s putting oneself forth toward experience.”

Because Canaan shall ALWAYS be a slave, we are given a choice. When we look out onto experience and find ourselves becoming heated up by what we see, we can choose to either put ourselves forth into experience and be open to persuasion. Or we can allow ourselves to be subdued by what draws inward of experience and be lost in being mentally devoted to it – overwhelmed by the wine, forever exploring our options, but never engaging any of them.

1 – Noach (נוח to rest) is related to NaHhaH (נחה to lead), NaHhaL (נחל to inherit), NaHhAT (to descend, come down, press down upon, bend), TsaNaHh (to go down from). It should be noted that all of the words in this list have a softer Hhet, whereas NoaCh has a harder Chet (voiceless pharyngeal fricative vs voiceless uvular-velar fricative). However, the latter evolved from the former, so the roots are still related.
2 – Shaem from SyM (שים) to put, place, arrange and apply; Cham from HhaMaH (חמה) which not only means to become heated / excited, but in Akkadian and according to Jastro in Hebrew also means to observe / see. The meaning of YePheT (יפת) is alluded to in the text (Gen 9:27) יפת אלהים ליפת Elohim shall persuade (make an opening) for Yephet.
3 – a flood (MaBuL – מבול). The dagesh in the letter baet suggests that this word was derived from NaBhaL (נבל). In Hebrew, the word Naebhel (נבל) means both a leather bottle and a musical instrument with bellows. The root literally means to push or send something outward. In Sabaic, the root means to dispatch, send someone on a mission, and to make overtures.
4 – Raven (\oRaeBh – עורב). There are two Hebrew roots ערב. The relevant one evolved from רב (R-B = to be large) and means to be a guarantor or security. Raven (\oRaeBh – עורב) comes from this root. Hence the need for a scarecrow.
5 – /aDaMah (ground – אדמה) comes from the root DooM (דום) which means to be still. In Arabic אדם means to enrich bread with food / fat / condiment; fatty / shortening; dyed leather; hide; skin; surface, earth), In Akkadian אדם means to be engaged in conflict whereas in Amharic it means plot, conspiracy, coup d’etat, strike, boycott. Similarly, in Ugaritic the verb is used in the following line: “the cow lows for her calf (..) as they lament.” Based on comparitive Semitics, I believe lament is best replaced with “are intensely concerned, absorbed, preoccupied, obsessed, engrossed together.” Lastly, the related root דאם in Arabic means “to remain, persist, last, go on, continue, persevere, be devoted, permanence, incessant.”
6 – Per Jastro and in Akkadian the verb associated with KeReM (כרם) means to pile / stock up.
7 – ברוך BaRuKh – although generally translated as blessed, the most accurate translation would be excellent in the sense of exceeding all bounds, both in regard to esteem and material aspects. Most of the roots with BaR (בר) literally mean to make a clearing, to clear away, or to go clear through, hence בור (clearing > pit), באר (clearing > well, to clearly elucidate), בער (to clear away > clear a field, burn), ברר (to clear away > sift), ברא (to clear away > to sculpt, create, carve, cut down), ברח (to go clear through > escape, bar), ברך (to go clear through > to excel, be / declare excellent; to make a clearing > kneel, pool), ברק (to go clear through > lightening)
8 – Most derive Eloah (אלוה) / Elohim (אלהים) from אל. I believe that the word evolved from LaWaH (לוה) meaning to escort and guide. Hence, initially the word Elohim (אלהים) referred to the pantheon of gods, whose purported purpose was to guide and escort humanity. With the advent of monotheism, the word was used with a singular verb to represent G-d, but continued to be used to represent the pantheons of others, a council of judges and people of similar purpose.

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About the Author
David Kolinsky is a retired physician born and raised in Monsey, New York. While living in Monterey California, David initially lived as a secular, agnostic Jew. However, in his spare time, he delved into twenty years of daily study of Hebrew etymology and Torah study culminating in the writing of an etymological dictionary of Biblical Hebrew and a metaphorical translation of Torah. Abandoning his agnostic views, David was simultaneously a spiritual leader of the world's smallest conservative synagogue, a teacher in his local reform synagogue, and a gabbai at Chabad. He is currently sheltering in place with his family in his new home in Plano, Texas.
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