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Parshas Noach 5779 - Watching and Feeling Dirty

13/10/18 08:58:18 PM

Oct13

Daniel Korobkin

  1. So much happens in a very rapid news cycle. Many have already moved on from the US Supreme Court confirmation hearing for now Justice Brett Kavanaugh (especially in light of the terrible act of terror at the Barkan industrial park in Israel, it seems like a triviality by comparison). But I’d still like to reflect on one aspect of these unfortunate hearings, because there’s a larger societal issue at stake: how they represent a societal breakdown of some sort. Something is broken, and we need to address it in order to know how to fix it.

 

  1. I was speaking with one of my children who lives in the US and asked him if he watched the hearings. He told me he did, but that he “felt dirty” after watching a few minutes. I felt this was a great expression of how I felt as well, and why I couldn’t bring myself to watch more than just a few snippets of the testimonies by the respective parties.

 

  1. There’s a tragic event that happens shortly after Noah and his family exit the Ark. We know that Noah planted a vineyard, got drunk, and that his son, Cham, witnessed the whole event and told his brothers about it (9:22-25):

 

(כב) וַיַּ֗רְא חָ֚ם אֲבִ֣י כְנַ֔עַן אֵ֖ת עֶרְוַ֣ת אָבִ֑יו וַיַּגֵּ֥ד לִשְׁנֵֽי־אֶחָ֖יו בַּחֽוּץ: (כג) וַיִּקַּח֩ שֵׁ֨ם וָיֶ֜פֶת אֶת־הַשִּׂמְלָ֗ה וַיָּשִׂ֙ימוּ֙ עַל־שְׁכֶ֣ם שְׁנֵיהֶ֔ם וַיֵּֽלְכוּ֙ אֲחֹ֣רַנִּ֔ית וַיְכַסּ֕וּ אֵ֖ת עֶרְוַ֣ת אֲבִיהֶ֑ם וּפְנֵיהֶם֙ אֲחֹ֣רַנִּ֔ית וְעֶרְוַ֥ת אֲבִיהֶ֖ם לֹ֥א רָאֽוּ: (כד) וַיִּ֥יקֶץ נֹ֖חַ מִיֵּינ֑וֹ וַיֵּ֕דַע אֵ֛ת אֲשֶׁר־עָ֥שָׂה־ל֖וֹ בְּנ֥וֹ הַקָּטָֽן: (כה) וַיֹּ֖אמֶר אָר֣וּר כְּנָ֑עַן עֶ֥בֶד עֲבָדִ֖ים יִֽהְיֶ֥ה לְאֶחָֽיו:

Cham, the father of Canaan, saw his father’s nakedness and told his two brothers outside. But Shem and Japheth took a cloth, placed it against both their backs and, walking backward, they covered their father’s nakedness; their faces were turned the other way, so that they did not see their father’s nakedness. When Noah woke up from his wine and learned what his youngest son had done to him, he said, “Cursed be Canaan; the lowest of slaves Shall he be to his brothers.”

 

  1. It’s quite strange that Cham’s son, Canaan, is invoked in this story – first by identifying Cham as Canaan’s father, and then by Noach actually cursing Canaan instead of Cham – since he doesn’t seem to have played any role in the story. Some mefarshim say that Canaan did play a role of some kind, by tagging along with his father and witnessing Noach’s intoxicated state. Others (see R’ Hirsch) explain that Canaan was not involved, but that the reason he’s invoked is because the Torah is being written and given by Moshe to the Jews of the generation of the Exodus, who are not familiar with the man Cham, but are all too familiar with the Canaanite nation, who possess certain traits and proclivities. It’s important for Bnei Israel to know Canaan’s history, and why the Canaanites should rightfully be ejected from the Holy Land.

 

  1. Let’s go deeper. When we observe Cham’s behavior, it seems that we can divide his sin into two parts: (a) First, he gazed at his father in his debased state, without trying to cover him up or look away. (b) Second, instead of keeping what he saw to himself, he went ahead and told his brothers about it, to publicize his father’s shame.

 

  1. Indeed, Chazal pick up on the dual nature of the sin. The Torah tells us that when a Jew owns a Canaanite slave (the name for any gentile slave; Canaanites in particular were known to have a large slave class in their ranks), if the owner knocks out either his eye or his tooth, the slave goes free (Ex. 21:26-27). Why these two body parts in particular? The Midrash answers (B”R 36:5) that it was because the father of all Canaanites, Cham, used both his eyes and his mouth as a weapon against their father. Thus, by losing either an eye or an extract of the mouth (a tooth), the slave has “atoned” for his needing to be a slave and therefore goes free.

 

  1. I suggest that our generation is guilty of this double crime of Cham, of both “gazing” and “talking” about the sins of the fathers. There’s a fascinating idea expressed by the Baal Shem Tov. Each person’s face is like a mirror; you see in the other person that which is a reflection of yourself. If you see something ugly in the other person, it usually means that there’s an aspect of that very same ugliness within yourself that is reflecting off of that other person. The Lubavitcher Rebbe[1] and others use this idea in the context of what Cham saw. When the Torah tells us that Cham saw his father in his debased state, it doesn’t just refer to a physical viewing. It means that Cham was obsessed with debasement, and that is why he fixated on that state within his father.

 

  1. In our generation, we’ve become fascinated by other people’s secret lives, what goes on in the bedroom, and other types of very personal information that until recently was no one’s business. We know more details than ever before about people’s private lives. This is both a blessing and a curse. The blessing is that it used to be easier to cover up one’s crimes. But today, both because of technology and a zero tolerance policy for the exploitation of others, it’s become much harder for people, especially men, to exploit others and get away with it. We b”H have taken many measures to protect women in our society, and this is manifest in the way that so many of us do business, such as having windows on all our doors, and having security cameras throughout our work place to protect vulnerable individuals from being harmed or exploited.

 

  1. But it’s also a curse. In our zeal to protect and avenge victims, we’ve become fixated on this particular aspect of the human condition, to the point where for many in society today, we presume that someone who was in a high school frat 30 years must have done something lewd and licentious. We “gaze” with fascination and zeal at what was done by our “fathers,” an earlier generation, years ago, casting the accusatory finger of guilt, with the presumption that we are so much more enlightened than they were back then.

 

  1. But our fascination doesn’t just lead us to gaze with interest. Instead of doing a private investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct, we feel free as a society to air this on national news and to make it part of our daily conversation. This is why so many people have felt “dirty” watching the proceedings. Even if we put aside the fact that much of what we watched was staged by politicians for political gain, the fact is these politicians found in us, the public, willing and eager accomplices to see this circus of accused debauchery, because, like Cham, we looked, we couldn’t turn away, and we just kept on wanting to discuss it further.

 

  1. And this is why I think that Cham was identified as Canaan’s father, and why Canaan was the one cursed. It’s not that Canaan did anything wrong, but he was still, alas, condemned to a tragic and accursed fate. Noach’s reflection about Cham was: If you could so cavalierly disregard your father, be so quick to judge me for being a debased person, without taking into account what I’ve gone through, what I’ve lived through, the differences in our generational perspectives, and if you could further so easily disregard my honor by openly discussing my private life in public, then your son, Canaan, will have the same attitude toward his father. Because once you’ve modeled this disrespectful and brazen behavior against your father to your son, he’ll be quick to do the same to you.

 

  1. It’s only a matter of a few years before the new generation becomes the old generation. 30 years from now, the media will be publicly attacking and humiliating the actions of our generation. And this can’t be good for society as a whole. Because when we tear down the previous generation, and we do it in such a brazen and crass way, we essentially destroy our own foundation, so that no matter what we build on top of that foundation, the structure will not stand.

 

  1. It used to be that we used to call the generation who lived through WWII, “The Greatest Generation” (based on a book by Tom Brokaw of the same name). Today, in our efforts to deconstruct the past, we are open to gazing upon the debasement of our parents and grandparents and tearing down that greatness. In many instances, like the recent conviction of actor Bill Cosby and others, this has been a necessary and just effort. But in many other ways, this has proven to be very destructive not only for the “greatest generation,” but for our future.

 

  1. I’m proud of my son for feeling “dirty” watching the Kavanaugh hearings. It means that we did something right in instilling within him a sense of modesty and propriety that are contained part and parcel of our Torah. But I worry about my son’s children, and whether they, too, will feel “dirty” when the next scandal hits the media. I worry that so much in the public sphere has become contaminated, and that we are all within the radius of that caustic fallout. These events remind us why we are Orthodox Jews, and why we’d do well to redouble our efforts in inculcating within our children the teachings and values of the Torah, at every available opportunity.

 

  1. It is yet one more reason why we pray for the Redemption to occur, may it happen speedily in our days, bb”a.
 

[1] See Likutei Sichos vol. 10, Parshas Noach 2.

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