Parshat Lech Lecha
Parshat Lech Lecha
“Noach awoke from his wine, and he knew what his young son had done to him. And he said, ‘Cursed is C’naan, he will be the slave of slaves to his brothers.’” (Bereishit 9, 24-25)
Noach did not leave the ark and live happily ever after, instead he faced a number of challenges. Noach’s drunkenness is an expression and reflection of these difficulties, as the Zohar explains:
“Rav Yehudah said Noach’s mind was addled when he left the ark, where he lived with animals and insects and vermin, and because he drank a little bit of wine he got drunk and was exposed.” (Zohar Chadash 1, Noach 38, 1)
With these few words the Zohar connects Noach’s subsequent behavior to the trauma he underwent residing in what was little more than a floating cage he shared with every animal in the world for over a year. Such an experience, along with the weight of the responsibility for the continued existence of the world that was placed on his shoulders, led to Noach’s eventual drunken collapse and exposure. His behavior reflects a loss of stability; he has lost his tether to rationality. According to the Zohar his "mind was addled," apparently a result of his frustration, and loss of his self-respect and human dignity. It's interesting that it is specifically Cham's desecration of Noach's human dignity that ends up arousing him from his listless stupor and awakening his life force in a call for his lost dignity.
What exactly did Cham do to Noach? In the gemara Rav and Shmuel disagree as to whether Cham castrated Noach or sexually assaulted him. (T.B. Sanhedrin 90a) The Maharal discusses the meaning of this dispute at length. (Be'er Hagola, Be'er V, 11) He maintains that the text itself intimates that Cham did more than merely embarrass his father. The use of the phrase "what his young son did to him" hints that Cham performed a physical act. Additionally the text says "vayar (R.A.H.) Cham"- Cham saw, and R.A.H. is a root associated with immoral sexual acts in the Torah.
Midrashim point out other details in the parsha that indicate that Cham prevented Noach from having any future children. They point out that Noach curses Cna'an, Cham's fourth child, indicating that Noach was upset about the fourth child he would never have. And Noach cursed Cna’an that he would be a slave because he lost a potential servant- another child would have been his ben zekunim, the child of his old age, and this child it typically responsible for caring for their elderly parents. The midrash in Bereishit Rabba (58, 36) points out all these subtleties, and more.
Yet Ramban does not think that the pshat indicates such a reading:
“And the sin was that Cham saw his father's nakedness and did not act respectfully toward him, for he should have covered his nakedness and covered his shame. And also he should not have told his brothers, and he told them in front of others to ridicule him, and this is the reason for [the word] "bachutz," "outside," as Onkelos explains "bashuka," "in the market." And the reason it says he knew "what he did to him" is that he revealed his shame to everyone, and he was embarrassed by it. And our Rabbis [attributed] an additional sin to him.” (See T.B. Sanhedrin 90a)
According to Ramban, Cham committed a double sin. He sinned when he did not cover his father’s nakedness and allowed him to expose himself in a disrespectful way. And he sinned when he went and told everyone who would listen what happened, and made the humiliation even worse. According to this explanation the most problematic part of Cham’s sin was not physical, but mental. This too is an action (“and he knew what his young son had done to him”). Cham caught Noach in a difficult moment and, instead of helping him, he used the situation to embarrass him in public. The public humiliation piled on top of the personal shame that Noach must have already felt for his actions.
The mishnah in Perek Hachovel (which deals with the laws of damages in personal injury cases) discusses the obligation to pay damages for boshet, humiliation, and points out that “one who embarrasses a sleeping person is obligated; and a sleeping person who embarrasses [another] is exempt.” (T.B. Baba Kama 86a)
This mishnah addresses humiliation from two points of view. On the one hand a person’s human dignity can be violated even behind their back, without their knowledge. The individual’s awareness at the time of the incident, or lack thereof, does not diminish the damage that is caused by the humiliation. The damage is done when their humiliation is publicized and others find out about it, even if the individual only finds out about it later.
Most people would be happy to hide certain details about their lives from the prying eyes of the public even if they themselves have to live with the knowledge of their actions. The secrecy surrounding each of us allows us to separate between our personal experiences and what others can see on the outside. It is a healthy boundary and whether or not a person is at home, in the street, or at work, it is a positive, necessary boundary that allows us to live our lives. Each of us wants to project a certain image, and it is part of our basic right to human dignity that we should be able to. Nakedness is the opposite of this modesty; a person must be allowed to keep some things to themselves.
The second part of the mishnah is just as important. “A sleeping person that embarrassed [another person] is exempt.” Humiliation is based on purposeful actions and intent. The exploitation and betrayal adds insult to the injury caused by the personal revelation.
In his book "Fear No Evil" Nathan Sharansky describes the humiliation he endured at the hands of the KGB during his imprisonment. He writes that the KGB:
"... knew very well that a prisoner who felt humiliated and had lost his self-respect could never become spiritually uncompromising. He might turn vengeful and cunning, but in that case they could channel his hatred and direct it against his fellow prisoners, which only hastened his demise."
Shortly thereafter he continues:
"Once I understood this, I realized that nothing they could do could humiliate me. I could only humiliate myself- by doing something I might later be ashamed of... Nothing they do can humiliate me. I alone can humiliate myself." (Page 8)
Sharansky makes it clear that humiliation stems from an individual's embarrassing actions. Someone who is dishonored can still be further humiliated. Yet from his experience we learn something more: People are driven by their dignity. Our dress and reputation are our calling cards, and when this reputation is undermined it can have a devastating effect on the entire personality. When a person is publicly humiliated in circumstances beyond their control their freedom of choice is taken away, they lose their agency and ability to determine how they wish to present themselves to the public.
This idea is similar to Sartre, who claims that humiliation is the result of a person being treated like an object. Voyeurism makes a person into an object, a picture for people to gawk at. This point of view removes any claim to authenticity or individuality; a person is no longer judged by who they are and the choices they make but rather by the cold "information" others know about them.
Sharansky and Sartre can help us understand that the opinions of Rav and Shmuel in the midrash are not so far removed from Ramban's plain reading of the text. There is a connection between castration and humiliation. When a person's dignity is cut off and they are left naked and exposed it can devastate their sense of self and inner world.
The Alter of Novardok, who founded one of the important streams of the mussar movement, taught that humiliation can be used as a positive tool, and one can choose to be humiliated. He advised his students to act strangely- to do things like go to a pharmacy and ask for a hammer and nails- in order to humiliate themselves. In this case the humiliation was supposed to break through the shiny façade and break down any conceit they held in their heart so they could fully subjugate themselves before God, for only a servant of God can ever truly be free. But that type of humiliation is one that the individual chooses. It is humiliation that symbolizes freedom.
In our parsha we are not dealing with freely chosen humiliation, we are dealing with the humiliation of animals or slaves. Noach's response is to curse the children of Cham with slavery, which indicates that a similar offense was committed against him. The denial of one’s right to be humiliated is a denial of their humanity, as the gemara states: “slaves do not have [the right to damages for] humiliation.”
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