Restarting Kavod

Rabbi Dr. Darrell Ginsberg

The cataclysmic event of the flood went beyond the destruction of the world and its occupants – it was, in many ways, the rebirth of the species of man. When viewing this event as laid out in the Torah, we have two vantage points. One is the view as a spectator, seeing the destruction unfold on a grand scale. The other is through the actions and words of Noach and his family, both before, during and after the flood. In this article, we will focus on the events after the flood, specifically regarding the incident between Noach and his son Cham.

The Torah describes the episode between Noach and his son in an extremely vague way; in fact, at first glance the nature extent of the sin is unclear (Bereishis 9:20-25):

“20. And Noah began to be a master of the soil, and he planted a vineyard. And he drank of the wine and became drunk, and he uncovered himself within his tent. And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father's nakedness, and he told his two brothers outside.  And Shem and Japheth took the garment, and they placed [it] on both of their shoulders, and they walked backwards, and they covered their father's nakedness, and their faces were turned backwards, so that they did not see their father's nakedness. And Noah awoke from his wine, and he knew what his small son had done to him. And he said, "Cursed be Canaan; he shall be a slave among slaves to his brethren.”

Rashi offers an astonishing explanation (ibid 25):

“Cursed be Canaan: You have caused me to be incapable of begetting a fourth son to serve me. Cursed be your fourth son, that he should minister to the children of these older ones [Shem and Japhet], upon whom the burden of serving me has been placed from now on (Gen. Rabbah 36:7). Now what did Ham see (what reason did he have) that he castrated him? He said to his brothers,“The first man [Adam] had two sons, and one killed the other so as to inherit the world, and our father has three sons, and he still desires a fourth son!””

Yes, what stands out most is the explanation for what Cham actually did to Noach – castration. This helps clarify why Noach accuses Cham of “preventing” him from having a fourth son. However, we must also understand why Noach was so inclined to have a fourth son at all. The same Midrash that Rashi alludes to explains that while on the ark, Noach was in great pain due to his desire to have a fourth son to serve him. This seemed to be an ardent wish of his. Of course we must then ask: why was Noach pining so greatly for a fourth son in the midst of his time on the ark?

One other question pops here: it seems that Cham’s reason for preventing Noach from having children was not connected to Noach’s desire to have another child. Noach wanted a son to serve him. Cham saw another child as some type of threat, seeming to imply that having a son for the purpose of serving his father was of no issue whatsoever. Is this indeed the case?

Answering these questions, as with any Midrashic explanation, is a challenge,. One commentator on the Midrash concerning Noach’s desire for a fourth son notes that the purpose of this fourth son, “to serve him”, in fact refers to the kavod, or honor, that a child offers to his parent. This is an extremely relevant point when understood in the context of the flood and the objective of kibud horim, honoring one’s parents. The flood was the destruction of mankind, a reboot of epic proportions. Thus, the obligation of pru u’rvu, the commandment for man to populate the world, took on a whole new meaning. Noach did have three children, all of whom would certainly lead the way in re-populating the world. And no doubt part of his desire to have a fourth child was related to his desire to join in this renewal of the commandment. Yet if this were all, there would be no need to mention the notion of his child “serving him” – having the child would be sufficient in and of itself. No, Noach had another idea in mind, one that he saw as part of the very concept of populating the world. 

One of the fundamental notions of honoring one’s parents is its service as a means to a greater understanding of man’s relationship to God. The dependency created between child and parent should lead the child to recognize his ultimate dependence on God. The notion of being “created” by one’s parents leads one to see God as the ultimate Creator. The parent, through kavod, becomes the vehicle to understanding these important ideas about God. We can understand from the child’s perspective the importance of seeing this. At the same time, we must see the role the parent plays, serving as the vehicle towards these critical ideas. It is possible Noach was striving for this role with his fourth child. 

What about Noach’s three other children? Nobody could question at this juncture they did not respect their father. It is possible, though, that the experience of the flood in fact redefined the role of the parent as vehicle. Noach and his family witnessed first-hand the complete annihilation of mankind. They saw with their eyes the manifestation of God’s hashgacha. It was beyond self-evident that they were to be the sole survivors. Think of the tremendous impact such a realization necessarily had on them. They understood the extent to which they were dependent on God. They recognized unquestionably the reality of the Creator. There was no longer any need for a vehicle, a mechanism to reaching these concepts. The parent was not the vehicle for Shem, Cham and Yefet. Again, this does not mean they did not have kavod for Noach. It does mean, though, that a significant role that kavod horim played in the child’s perfection was no longer relevant.

Noach saw this as a void in the concept of pru u’rvu. On its most basic level, the commandment to populate the earth is in line with the need to propagate the species of man. Yet one should not view pru u’rvu as simply a way to ensure population growth. Through the very result of pru u’rvu comes the opportunity to engage in kibud horim. Each child born, bound to their parents, now has the vehicle available to become closer to God. Yes, there are two separate commandments, one for propagation and the other for honoring parents. However, the idea here is that there is a philosophical kesher between the two. It could be then that Noach wanted this fourth child more than to re-start pru u’rvu – it was a renewal of the concept of kavod. 

We see Cham did not take too kindly to Noach’s wishes. However, in light of the above idea, we can see the thread that ties Noach’s reasoning with Cham’s “rebellion”, or at least one feature of it. Cham survived the flood, obviously profoundly affected. No doubt, the idea of kavod for his father changed as well, the events of the day creating this change. Cham now related to Noach in a different way as a result of this change in kavod. As we mentioned above, a father serves as a vehicle to greater ideas. Yet there is another role of the father – provider of inheritance. The essential role of his father then became provider of inheritance, and this was something Cham wanted to ensure would not be in any way effected.  Surely there were other psychological factors involved. However, the above theme helps develop part of the cause to his infamous act of brutality.

The essential idea here lies in Noach’s understanding of the relationship between propagation of the species and the opportunity for kavod. Normally, we see one as purely functional and the other as a critical philosophical part of any child. However, Noach, based on this Midrashich explanation, saw them as being somewhat causally related. A fourth child, in Noach’s eyes, meant the restoration of this important relationship.