Noach - The Shame Of Cham
By Rabbi Aron Tendler
In the aftermath of the Mabul, Noach planted a vineyard. The vineyard
produced grapes and Noach made wine. Noach drank the wine and became
"intoxicated". Alone in his tent, Noach disrobed and fell into a deep
sleep. While asleep and uncovered, Canaan the son of Cham, Noach's
grandson, entered his grandfather's private residence, saw his
grandfather's less than dignified condition and informed his father. Cham
entered his father's tent, degraded and assaulted his father's person and
dignity and then told his two brothers. Shem and Yefes undertook to care
for their father without further compromising his dignity.
Upon awakening from his sleep, Noach knew what his youngest son Cham had
done to him. He gathered his three sons, blessed Shem and Yefes and cursed
Cham and Canaan. Shem was blessed with becoming the progenitor of the
Jewish people and Yefes was granted the gift of esthetics, design, and
architecture. Cham and Canaan were cursed with being subservient and
subject to Shem and Yefes.
What was Cham's sin? Why was Canaan so prominently implicated in his
father's doing? Whatever Cham had done to Noach was Cham's decision and
responsibility, not Canaan's. Canaan had only provided the information.
Rashi references two descriptions of Cham's sin. 1. He castrated Noach;
2. He sodomized Noach. Both explanations are distasteful and demand
Rashi records Cham's reasoning for the first answer. "Adam had two sons,
Kayin and Hevel. Kayin killed Hevel because he did not want to share the
world with his brother. My father has three sons and desires a fourth. As
it is, I stand to inherit only 1/3 of the world. If my father has more
sons, my portion will be even less! Therefore, I will make sure that my
father cannot have any more sons."
Could Cham have been that selfish? In the aftermath of the Mabul, at the
dawn of a brave new world, is it possible that he had forgotten the lessons
of the Mabul? The Madul was not just another natural disaster. It was the
single greatest destruction and revelation ever in human history. The
eight survivors of Noach's family were witness to a second creation. The
past was gone. All remnants of humanity's ignoble failure had been wiped
away. Only the righteous remained. All evil had died. All bad had
ended. The righteous were rewarded, the good had been saved. Yes! Who
could question it? There truly was a G-d in the universe who cared enough
to punish the bad and reward the righteous. The universe had
apurpose. There was rhyme and reason to the events of history!
Mattan Torah (Revelation at Mt. Sinai) by contrast was experienced by one
small segment of humanity. The Mabul, on the other hand, involved all of
humanity. Mt. Sinai revealed a system that guaranteed G-d's
judiciousness. Do His commandments and believe that the righteous will be
rewarded. Do His commandments and believe that evil will be
punished. However, the Mabul was justice! The Mabul was literally Divine
justice revealed upon earth. How could Cham have not been affected?
It is possible that Cham was that "one bad apple" in the bunch. However,
if that was true, why was he saved from the Mabul? Cham was not some
teenager going through his rebellious stage. He wasn't a victim of
circumstances who with a little patience and understanding would prove to
be responsible and productive. Cham was over 100 years old! By then his
true character should have been known. The fact that he was saved proved
that he was deserving of being saved. He was among the righteous! What
happened to him during the year in the Tayvah (Box - Ark) to so drastically
alter his character?
The truth is that all sinning stems from the same primal conflict: "Do I
do what I want or do I do what G-d wants?" Human egocentricism and desires
are the setting for sin. The Medresh related that Cham and his wife were
the only couple, human or animal, to cohabit while on the Tayvah. All of
the other "survivors" remained celibate until emerging from the Tayvah one
year from the start of the Mabul. Furthermore, Canaan was conceived during
that year while on the Tayvah.
Resolve and commitment are only as strong as their first challenge. If we
succeed in remaining strong and committed, we build on that victory and
become even stronger and more committed, able to withstand even greater
challenges. If we succumb to temptation, we not only do not grow stronger,
we become more challenged and conflicted. Just as success breeds success,
failure breads failure. Having failed, we must also contend with an added
sense of personal failure and guilt on top of the reawakened taste of
Cham not only failed himself when he was together with his wife, he failed
all of humanity. He sullied the new beginning. Humanity would not emerge
pure and pristine from the cataclysmic destruction of the past. In order
to deal with his own failure and the inevitability that his failure would
be exposed with the birth of Canaan, Cham had to rationalize and convert
his failure into a philosophy.
At the beginning of the Parsha, Rashi explained that the prediluvian world
had devolved into wanton crossbreeding between the various species
including humans. The natural demarcations set by G-d were ignored and
erased. This extended to all aspects of human society and there was no
respect for the person or property of another. Rape, murder, and thievery
were rampant. Cham reviewed the history of his world and concluded that
speciation was the key to creation. However, he rationalized that the
human was just another species. Granted, we were more intelligent and
resourceful, but in the final analysis they were just another species of
As another species of animal, the human had to remain apart and distinct,
but nothing else. Beyond that they had no other nobler responsibility or
purpose. Just as G-d had destroyed both human and animal so too had He
saved both human and animal. It was all about survival and only
survival. Human or animal, there was no real difference except to remain
apart and distinct from each other. So long as humanity respected G-d's
established, natural, lines of demarcation between the species, G-d's
purpose for destroying the past would be accomplished. Beyond that, there
was not any greater nobility to the human race than any other species.
Cham went so far as to justify his behavior on the Tayvah. Not only had he
not sinned, he had done that which guaranteed a head start for his own
species within the species of human. It was pure Darwinism in its most
Canaan, was not the scarlet letter of the new world! Just the opposite!
Cham saw Canaan and himself as living symbols of human endurance and
survival. They represented the divine imperitive given to all species to
survive at all cost. Therefore, caring for others and concern for all other
species was restricted to the arena of self-serving interests and desires.
If it did not advance Cham's personal goals they were not significant. His
goal was to survive and perpetuate his progeny!
Emerging from the Tayvah, Noach sought to inject purpose and nobility into
creation. However, more than anything else, he wanted to give birth to a
new and pure generation. Shem, Cham, Yefes and their wives were survivors
of the past. They would struggle with memories of a G-dless world. Their
noble and holy aspirations would always be contrasted against a backdrop of
hedonistic pleasure. However, their children could be raised in an
environment of pure devotion and G-dliness without the contrasting
enticements of prediluvian amorality. Noach himself wanted the chance of
birthing such a generation. He too wanted more children and said as much
to his three sons. However, it was not to be.
Noach's desire to plant a vineyard and make wine was noble and
purposeful. Wine, drunk in moderation,has the ability to grace. On the
other hand, wine in excess usually disgraces. Noach wanted to attach grace
and dignity to the new world. He wanted to frame pleasure in moderation
and purpose. However, he was unprepared for the potency of its
affect. Noach should have waited much longer before attempting the
reintroduction of luxury into the new world. As a result, he became
intoxicated. However, he had sufficient control and dignity to remain in
Cham, on the other hand, had advanced his own thinking in opposition to his
father's. Hurting from the assumed and most likely stated criticism of his
actions on the Tayvah, Cham was already prepared to take action when Canaan
ran to tell him of Noach's intoxicated disgrace. Cham seized the moment to
secure his own future and that of his offspring.
Furthermore, according to the second of Rashi's descriptions, Cham decided
to symbolically degrade his father, the progenitor of humanity, to the
level of animal. It was an act that did not negate the natural boundaries
of speciation, yet, it reduced human nobility to the level of base
selfishness and animal desire. It was an act that captured the essence of
Cham's personal philosophy perpetrated on Noach who symbolized the nobility
of the divine human!
In the end, Cham was truly the perpetrator of the crime, although Canaan
was a willing conspirator in the assault. Canaan knew his father's
philosophy. He knew that he was different than all the other cousins. He
was older by at least 9 months. He was the first to be born in the new
world, and he was seen as the hope of humanity and its future. Canaan was
also the direct beneficiary of Cham's perverted philosophy and actions. As
the first-born he stood to inherit his father's 1/3 portion of the world.
All in all, G-d judged Canaan to be responsible for his own actions and
intent. Rather than choosing to follow the teachings of his uncles and deny
his father's perversions, Canaan ignored the living examples of Noach,
Shem, and Yefes and supported his father. Therefore it was Canaan who was
"cursed" with becoming "a slave to slaves to his brothers."
As in all situations, G-d's curses are really blessings in disguise. If
Canaan would subjugate himself to the teachings of his uncles they would
provide him with the proper education and necessary corrections. Rather
than a philosophy of self-serving egocentricity and selfishness, and
survival he would have been shown a life of generosity, Chesed, and caring
for all others.
Copyright © 2001 by Rabbi Aron Tendler
and Project Genesis, Inc.
The author is Rabbi of Shaarey Zedek Congregation,
Valley Village, CA.