Nu, what would you do if you saw your father, drunk, sitting naked around the house? You could tell someone, or you could do something to preserve your father’s dignity. Woe unto Ham, for he did not stop to cover his father’s drunken nakedness-he ran to get (tell) his brothers instead. For this he is cursed by his father (after he had slept it off.) Ham is also linked to being the ancestor of all the Canaanites, thus setting the stage for the future fratricide the Hebrew people committed by command of their G"d. However, that’s a rant for another time.
Shem and Japeth did not even look upon their father’s nakedness-they walked backwards to cover their father with a cloth. Of course, this begs the question "How could they be certain their father really was naked? Either they looked, at some point, or they simply took Ham at his word.
In all this, who is most like their father Noah, who was righteous for this time? (Talk about a qualified endorsement.) Shem and Japeth were people of action, like their father, but, unlike their father, they didn’t need to be told what to do. Ham, on the other hand, at least noticed his father’s nakedness and went to tell his brothers. Perhaps not as direct a helpful action as possible, but an action, nonetheless. Perhaps Ham’s judgment was tempered by his own observation of his father’s behavior. Noakh told no one-he just went about building the ark as instructed, and saving the animals and his family as instructed. Perhaps Ham simply wanted to converse with his brothers to choose the appropriate course of action. That’s not the implication we get from the Torah, but as the connection to the Canaanites makes plain, there’s an agenda here.
Yes, Shem and Japeth took an action that benefitted Noakh in many ways: keeping him warm, preserving his dignity, etc. Yet neither of them (or Ham, for that matter) undertook tokhekhah, attempting to correct their father. Respect your elder, yes, but that’s no reason to counsel him against the evils of drinking too much wine. In their defense it could be argued that wine was an unknown at that point, Noakh being the first vintner. Did Noakh figure this out on his own? Did someone show Noakh how to make wine? (If so, he wasn;t the first vintner after all.) Was it merely a happy accident that Noakh discovered fermentation?
Yes, there’s a clear cut lesson from this story – that one should not merely inform – rather one should take action. Nevertheless, perhaps Ham gets a bum rap after all. To think about it, why all this fuss about Noakh being naked inside his own tent? Who was going to see him? Is this just carryover from the Gan Eden story, and reinforcement of the message that covering up one’s nakedness is good whereas being naked is evil (as Adam and Hava discovered when they ate of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil?)
The rabbis concocted one whopper of a tale to explain why Ham was so excoriated. According to the midrash, it was Canaan, son of Ham and grandson of Noakh, who discovered Noakh naked in the tent. He told his father the news, whereupon Ham came storming into the tent and castrated his own father so that he would not bear yet a fourth son and thus diminish Ham’s 1/3rd share of the inheritance. It seems Ham, seeing his father intoxicated, expected intercourse to result? Perhaps the rabbis are also suggesting that the reason Shem and Japeth did not gaze upon Noakh was not just for nakedness, but for the mutilation performed on him by Ham?
I guess the lesson is "don’t be like Ham." Of course, one could just as easily say "don’t be like Noakh" or "Don’t be like Shem or Yapeth" which leads ultimately to the troubling idea "don’t be like G"d." Maybe we should just stick with "don’t be like Ham."
Can’t eat ham, can’t be like Ham. Funny, isn’t it? (Yes, we all know it’s pronounced "khahm." Just go with it.)
©2009 by Adrian A. Durlester