Parashat Noach: Incredible initiative

The actions of Noach’s three sons and Noach’s reaction to each give us insight into our own lives and into how our service to Hashem differs from the service of other nations.

Rabbanit Shira Smiles, | updated: 13:29

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Parshat Noach records the incredible survival of the world after the flood through the righteous Noach, his three sons and their wives. The end of the parsha, however, is anticlimactic. After leaving the grueling life on the ark, Noach plants a vineyard, drinks wine, and falls into a drunken, naked stupor. Ham sees his father in this condition, emasculates Noach and tells his brothers about their father. “And Shem and Yaphet took [vayikah – singular] a simlah/garment… walked backwards and covered their father.” When Noach awoke, he understood all that had happened and predicted the future for his three sons: “Cursed is Canaan [Ham’s son] a slave of slaves shall he be to his brothers. Blessed is Hashem, the God of Shem… May God Yapht/extend/give beauty to Yaphet and may he dwell in the tents of Shem…”

We say, “Maaseh avot siman lebanim/The history of the ancestors can be a sign/prediction for their future descendants. This holds true not only for Bnei Yisroel, but for other peoples as well, and here it is equally predictive for the future history of the nations and civilizations that will emerge from the three progenitors of this newly recreated world. The actions of Noach’s three sons and Noach’s reaction to each bear witness to the truth of this adage while also giving us insight into our own lives and into how our service to Hashem differs from the service of other nations.

Our first observation is that the verb [he] took is in the singular. Rashi therefore deduces that initially only Shem took the garment to cover Noach and then Yaphet joined him. Therefore, the descendants of Shem were rewarded with an additional garment, the tzitzit, whereas Yaphet’s descendants, as Ezekiel prophesied, will be rewarded with being buried after the cataclysmic war of Gog and Magog.

This brings us to another important question. Our tradition tells us that rewards and punishments are usually meted out middoh keneged middoh/measure for measure. How are tziztit and burial appropriate rewards for the actions if Shem and Yaphet, asks the Imrei Chen?

Rabbi Dunner z”l in Mikdash Halevi provides some insight. Rabbi Dunner z”l notes that while both Shem and Yaphet seem to have done the same action, the mindset, motivation and effort of each was different.  Shem took the initiative while Yaphet then went along, realizing that covering the nakedness of their father was the proper thing to do.  Donning tzitzit is a constant, daily, active, living reward while burial is a proper, onetime reward after one’s death, a ritual in which the deceased himself takes no action. The greater effort of Shem earned him the greater reward, while the mere “lip service” of Yaphet earned him a lesser reward. As Letitcha Elyon notes, citing Rabbi Wachtfogel ,z’l although outwardly actions seem to be equal, Hashem is acutely aware of the internal differences and effort. As Rav Bunim z”l explains, the same mitzvah can require more effort from one person than from another. Davening with a minyan, for example, may require one to walk a long distance while another may just need to step into the house next door. Hashem rewards the commitment and effort as well as the act itself.

The essence of the mitzvah is the investment of self in its performance even more than the performance itself, writes Rabbi Pliskin. This was the difference between Shem and Yaphet. And this is the difference in the way a Jew lives his life in contrast to the way a non Jew lives his life. This is also the difference between whom the Prophet Malachi calls an oved Elokhim/servant of God and one who is deemed not a servant of God, writes the Yalkut Lekach Tov citing the Talmud. One who goes the extra mile, who reviews a passage of learning one extra time is the one who is the true eved Hashem. This was the personification of Shem.

Rabbi Wolbe z”l provides examples of the different attitudes between people. Tefillin has been a mitzvah for millenia and for millions of men in every generation. One puts on tefillin with joy while another considers it a daily burden, keeping him from running off to his business. Perhaps even more telling is our reaction to the opportunity to give tzedakah. Do we give it grudgingly or do we approach the other with a kind word of encouragement and a smile, grateful for the opportunity to do this mitzvah?

The world measures a man by his actions and by results; God measures man by his effort and by his potential. Both Shem and Yaphet had the potential to do the mitzvah of covering their father, but only Shem, by taking the initiative and putting in the extra effort, lived up to his potential, writes Rabbi Mordechai Ezrachi. Noach himself was a tzadik only in his generation, continues Rabbi Ezrachi, because he did not live up to is full potential. We must all recognize what we are capable of and what our true limitations are, but we tend to sell ourselves short. After all, reminds us Rav Chaim Shmulevitz, z”l this world was not created for ease and repose, but for struggle, for overcoming and achieving. That’s why Hashem rewards effort. When you do only the minimal requirements, without effort, you are removing the “yoke of Heaven,” writes the Sifsei Chaim. One must take the initiative and go above and beyond. [Interestingly, secular society also considers “above and beyond” worthy of recognition. Isn’t that what is inscribed on every heroic medal? CKS]

When you make the extra effort in a difficult undertaking, you are inVESTing yourself and making it part of you, just as your VESTments and clothing are part of you. Therefore, it was appropriate that Hashem rewarded Shem with an article of clothing that would be used for a mitzvah that both you and others see, writes Rav Yaakov Borenstein in Vezos LeYaakov.

Hashem’s calculations in rewards are very finely tuned. One collecting tzedakah may not even notice the smile one man gave him while the other gave him the same amount without a smile, but Hashem notices, and that smile earned a great reward. To illustrate this point, Rabbi Yaakov Hillel cites the verse in Shemot, that Hashem did not lead Bnei Yisroel into Eretz Canaan “because it was close.”  Rabbi Hillel suggests that the closeness does not refer to a geographical location, but rather to a time frame. It was too early for the Canaanites to be removed from their land. They had earned another forty years in their land through their minor gestures of respect and mourning for Yaakov Avinu when his funeral procession passed through their land. We don’t know the reward for our actions. In our parsha, Shem gets a reward about life, while Yaphet gets a reward millenia later at death.

Exploring our theme from another perspective, Rabbi Mintzberg z”l in Ben Melech notes that Noach is described in three different ways in this parsha. Noach is first called a tzadik who is tamim/whole, complete/perfect. Then Noach is described as, “Et haElokhim hithalech Noach/Noach walked with God.” Finally, Noach is called an “Ish Adamah/A man of the earth.” Each of Noach’s sons inherited and took for himself one of these attributes, and each received a blessing/prophecy that coincided neatly with this attribute. Yaphet appreciated the wholeness and beauty of the world. His descendants, the Greeks, valued beauty and the perfection, especially of the human body. Shem led his life with the purpose of following God’s will and later founded a yeshivah to further knowledge of God. His descendants would accept the Torah. Cham was the man of passion and sensuality. The path of both Yaphet and Cham, to reach their full potential, must go through the path set by Shem.

Perhaps we can understand this relationship better by using Freud’s terminology: Cham translates as heat. Cham represents the Id, the Ish Adamah, the one who is most motivated by physical necessities and desires. Yaphet represents the ego, conforming to social norms and the need for social recognition. Shem represents the superego, understanding that there is a higher purpose in life. [One must remember that every human being possesses each of these characteristics to some degree, although the ratios will invariably be different from one individual to another. Even passion has an important place in advancing mankind and his mission. CKS]

Now we can better understand the motivation behind the actions each of the sons took. The Shvilei Pinchas explains that Shem covered his father for the mitzvah of honoring one’s father, as Hashem commanded, leShem Shamayim. Yaphet covered his father because it was proper etiquette. The Gemmara states that herein lies a fundamental difference between the actions and words of a Jew and those of a non Jew. Both a Jew and a non Jew may pledge charity as a merit for a loved one’s being healed from an illness. If the sick person succumbs, the Jew still feels he has done a mitzvah while a non Jew would more likely consider the donation wasted. The Jew, even when he thinks he’s doing a mitzvah for a reward ultimately wants the connection to Hakodosh Boruch Hu, while the non Jew has ulterior motives. A Jew has that deep desire to connect to Hashem, and so even if initially he does the mitzvah with an ulterior motive, that innate desire leads him to eventually do the mitzvah completely for the sake of Heaven. Shem is internally motivated; Yaphet is interested only in the external display.

Therefore, Hashem gave Bnei Yisroel the mitzvah of tzitzit as a way of constantly connecting to Hashem, continues the Shvilei Pinchas. Not only does seeing the tzitzit remind us to observe all the mitzvoth, but also represents the motivation of being holy to Hashem your God. Yaphet, on the other hand, was just interested in the externals, not in a connection to Hashem.

Rabbi Zweig brings all this into clear focus for us. Cham’s action was driven completely by personal desire. Not wanting any further heirs for his father, Cham mutilated Noach’s body. Yaphet, who exalted the perfection of the human body, found it inappropriate to have a mutilated, disfigured body visible. Only Shem wanted to retain his father’s dignity and covered him with a simlah, traditionally clothing representing dignity. Tzitzit fringes would be a symbol of identity and dignity, much like a graduate’s tassel.  Yefet’s reward, is similarly in the final war, the disfigured bodies will be buried, which is distasteful to the aesthetic eye of Yefet.

With the nations of the world, writes Rabbi Mintzberg, external appearances are everything. It is either nice, proper, or beautiful. While Bnei Yisroel agree that things should be nice and proper, Bnei Yisroel invests everything with the additional dimension of kedushah/sanctity, that this is what Hashem commands. Even when society accepts some behavior as the norm, we don’t, because HaShem is within us, both in name and in our DNA.

Shira Smiles shiur 2019/5780 Adapted by Channie Koplowitz Stein





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