Shabbat Parashat Noach| 5765
Three Brothers; Three CulturesHarav Moshe Ehrenreich
In our parasha, we have the opportunity to meet three of the world’s cultures, as they emerged from their forefathers: Shem (Yisrael), Cham (C’na’an), and Yefet (Greek culture). Let us review what transpired (Bereishit 9: 20-27).
Noach became drunk and revealed his nudity. His three sons reacted differently to the situation. Cham, who freely told his brothers of the disgrace he saw, showed a lack of sensitivity to human dignity. Shem took the initiative to rectify the situation, as the Torah hints by using the singular verb form to describe the act of covering that is attributed to him and, secondarily, to Yefet (see Rashi on 9:23). While both covered their father with their back to him, Shem did so in order not to reveal the internal blemish that his father’s physical state engendered. In contrast, Yefet was concerned with the aesthetic distaste involved.
Rav S. R. Hirsch explains how we see here the prototypes of three diverse, cultural tendencies among nations and individuals. Shem represents spirituality. Cham represents the height of physicality. Yefet represents the point of convergence between the spiritual and physical, which is the art of external beauty. Rav Hirsch continues to explain that there are nations who go out to conquer and destroy, to eat and to drink, and everything about them is violence and coarseness. There are other nations that dedicate their energy to art and aesthetic beauty. They coat the physical with pleasantness and come in contact with the spiritual by their involvement in poetry and music. These are the followers of the approach of Yefet. Of course, this is not the height of spirituality. Rather, the essence of spirituality, explains Rav Hirsch, is that only by recognizing the truth and absolute good, can a person reach his full potential. This is the idea behind the legacy of the culture of Shem.
When Noach realized what had transpired, he cursed Cham and blessed Shem and Yefet, saying that “Yefet shall dwell in the tent of Shem” (ibid. :27). The gemara (Megilla 9b) sees this pasuk as granting permission to allow art forms to enter realms of the holy, as even a sefer Torah can be written in Greek. Yet the gemara in Yoma (9b) limits the matter by saying that “even though Hashem gave beauty to Yefet, the Divine Presence will dwell only in the tent of Shem.” This is the reason that the Divine Presence was found in the first Beit Hamikdash, built by Shlomo Hamelech, and not in the second, which was erected under the auspices of the Persians.
Rav Kook (Orot, pg. 252) explains that Hashem was kind in granting the nations of the world the skill of art in order to create a point of contact between our different cultures that enables us to influence them and create a certain level of unity between Israel and the rest of the world. However, the connection is external. In Orot Hakodesh (II, pg. 403) Rav Kook says that when one delves into the secrets of the Torah, he reveals that, in essence, the aesthetic side of Yefet emanates from the tents of Shem.
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