Noah, the complete, righteous soul of his generation, gets himself good and drunk after the flood experience has passed. He has planted a vineyard, acted as his own vintner and sommelier, and become so inebriated — perhaps publicly in the open field, perhaps lying asleep in bed — that he is stark naked (Genesis 9:20-21).
Noah’s son, Cham, sees the remarkable sight and rushes to tell his brothers Shem and Yafet, both of whom modestly clothe their father (Genesis 9:22-23). Noah, after sobering up, realizes what has happened, blesses Shem and Yafet, and execrates Canaan, the son of Cham, with the curse that he be a slave to his brothers (Genesis 9:24-25).
This account begs several questions.
First, why was Noah planting grapes?
All humanity and vegetation had been destroyed by the Great Flood. It devolved on Noah, the Ish Tzadik (Man of Righteousness), to re-establish the Earth, too, becoming the Ish HaAdamah (Man of the Earth).
Where did he get the plantings to create his vineyard?
The Midrash tells us that he had brought a wide range of plantings with him onto the ark, even as he gathered the animals that would survive the deluge.
Why did Noah begin by planting a vineyard?
Some commentators say he wanted to grow the grapes from which he could press the juice and ferment the wine to serve God as libations augmenting animal offerings. Others suggest he wanted the wine for more recreational reasons.
And why did he bare himself?
Some suggest he became inebriated and thus degraded himself, but the Chatam Sofer says Noah may have believed that, with the world cleansed of evil, Creation had returned to the pristine state that defined the Garden of Eden, where the natural order initially saw it proper for Adam and Eve to be naked.
Ultimately, Cham is our pedagogical focus. If his father’s nakedness was evident only while asleep in bed (“in his tent”) (Genesis 9:21), Cham had no business entering his father’s inner chamber without permission. Such an act was both disrespectful and shameful. Rav Shamshon Rafael Hirsch emphasizes that a healthy father-son relationship is not built around a boy admiring his father’s muscle-bound physique, but rather around a boy admiring his father’s soul and character. For that respect to evolve there must be boundaries, which Cham shattered.
If, however, Noah’s nakedness was more prominent, as other commentators believe, Ramban (citing Onkelos) finds the gravity of Cham’s sin in his running to the marketplace to spread the gossip of his father’s shame. Indeed, Rav Hirsch notes the Torah’s terminology in verse 22: va-yaged (“and he told,” as in the evocative storytelling we associate with the haggadah) rather than merely va-yomer (“and he said”).
As Noah fully realizes the dimensions of Cham’s disrespect — whether his shamelessly violating the privacy of his father’s inner sanctum of the bedroom or his unnecessarily spreading the gossip at the public square, maximizing the humiliation of his father — Noah execrates Cham’s son, Canaan. He cannot condemn Cham, because God has blessed all the sons directly (Genesis 9:1). Instead, Noah imprecates Canaan, and the curse is actualized in two dimensions. In Leviticus 18:3, we are warned not to emulate the shameful practices of the Canaanites who, by then, have emerged as a developed nation steeped in uncovering nakedness outside the Torah’s construct of holiness. And in Isaiah 20:4, the prophetic measure for measure is prognosticated: the king of Assyria will force the Cushites, descendants of Canaan, young and old, to march unclothed, barefoot, with exposed buttocks.
At the core of the tragedy was one man’s compelling need to spread defamation — albeit true gossip (protected under California law, where “truth is a complete defense” to an action for slander) — to others who never had to hear it. This terrible need, a terrible sickness and malady of the very soul, to shame someone else in the town square, to humiliate — the inability simply to restrain the desire to tell a good story that would embarrass someone else — brings down so many. And the Torah’s way is found in the dignified response of Shem who, soon joined by brother Yafet, says nothing to Cham. Instead, he promptly clothes his father with modesty, dignity and nobility of spirit.
Dov Fischer, adjunct professor of law at Loyola Law School, is rabbi of Young Israel of Orange County, a Modern Orthodox shul in Irvine. He blogs at rabbidov.com.