Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 26 October 2019 / 27 Tishri 5780

Parshat Noach

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
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Branches of Humanity: Wisdom, Sensuality and Beauty

Noach begets three children, from whom humanity as we know it descends. They are Shem, Cham and Yefet. Names in the Torah are of extraordinary significance, and these names particularly so. We find in them allusions to differences in character which will define and challenge humanity for the rest of history. The affirmation of these differences in these ancestral roots — and the fact that G‑d permitted all three to survive the flood — indicates that this diversity was Divinely designed. It signals to us that G-d’s plan is to realize the ultimate purpose of mankind despite all the national and cultural differences, or perhaps precisely through the interaction between the different nationalities.

Shem means name, the conception and demarcation of a given object. Human wisdom originally consisted of man’s ability to give names to things. To express the conception of a thing and thereby assign it its spiritual “place” (sham, “ there,” isa close conjugate of shem). Thus, shem implies an intellectual or spiritual activity, that of discernment and of expressing or ‘naming’ concepts and ideas — still the stuff of modern wisdom.

Cham meanshot and it denotes inflamed excitement of the senses, burning sensuality.

Yefet relates to patah, patach (enticement, open). The term peti refers to one whose mind is open and gullible and will believe anything. Every external impression overwhelms him. Yefet also relates to the root yafah (beautiful), and denotes the emotions and the imagination, which are attracted by beauty. Yefet represents the meeting point of Shem’s intellect and Cham’s sensuality: emotion, sentiment.

These three aspects — wisdom, sensuality and beauty — comprise the inner life of man. In a man like Noach, all three were subordinated to a higher principle. Noach is described as a “righteous man, morally pure” who “walked with G-d.” The intellect is trained to “walk with G-d”; sensuality is elevated by becoming “morally pure”; and man’s will and aspirations are elevated through becoming “righteous.”

Noach’s children represent the splintering of these characteristics. Shem is the thinker and his task is to walk before G-d. Cham is the sensualist and his task to purify the desires of the senses. Yefet is the aesthetic who is to become righteous, to be guided by the ideal of goodness instead of beauty.

Rav Hirsch takes us on a tour of world history through the lens of the three children of Noach. The nations that have created the greatest stir in world history are those dominated by Cham: the sensuality that harnesses mind and emotions to its chariot and permits the spirit to function only as a vehicle for the physical. These are the nations that conquer and destroy by brute force and sensuality. Noach curses Cham that he will be a slave. Man cannot blossom by means of coarseness and burning sensuality. Cham’s lust will lead to his own slavery.

Other nations devote their energies to beauty, to the cultivation of the arts and aesthetics. They recognize that there is a higher ideal to which man must ascend, spreading a cloth of elegance over crude sensuality. Their fruit is poetry, music and the other fine arts. The fullest flowering of Yefet’s line was in Yavan, ancient Greece — to where aesthetic refinement can trace its roots.

However, education of mankind cannot be accomplished by the sense of beauty and harmony alone, for those are necessarily subjective. There must be an ideal outside of man that raises man to his higher calling. Shem, then, who promotes spiritual values and contributes to the recognition of truth, makes the greatest contribution to the welfare of mankind. Shem’s grandson, Ever, from whom the Jews (Ever – Hebrews) descend, represents the pinnacle of wisdom and truth-advancement.

Noach expresses the wish that Cham become the servant of Shem. Noach blesses “G‑d, the G-d of Shem,” for unlike the brute-force “gods” of Cham, the G-d of Shem invests man with dignity, exalting him and uplifting him above nature. But when sensuality is subjugated to the wisdom and G-dliness of Shem, it too can fulfill its Divine mission.

Yefet mediates between Cham and Shem. The uncivilized must first become cultured — refined by appreciation of beauty and decency — before they are prepared to receive the teachings of Shem. This is what Noach envisions: G-d will open [people’s] emotions to Yefet, but He will dwell in the tents of Shem.

  • Sources: Ber. 6:10; 9:28

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