THE WESTWOOD VILLAGE SYNAGOGUE
Dr. Abner Weiss, Rabbi
RABBI ABNER WEISS’S WEEKLY TORAH TEACHING
PARASHAT NO’ACH 5772/2011
RESPONSES TO HOLOCAUST
Noah, the farmer, planted a vineyard. And he drank the wine, and became drunk; and he was naked within his tent. And Cham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers who were [standing] outside. And Shem and Yefet took a garment and laid it upon both their shoulders, and went in backwards and covered the nakedness of their father; and their faces were turned away, and they saw not their father's nakedness. And Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his youngest son had done to him. And he said: cursed be Canaan; he shall be a servant of servants unto his brothers. And he said: Blessed be the Lord, the God of Shem; and let Canaan be their servant. God enlarge, Yefet and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem.(Genesis 9:20–27).
The conclusion of the Noah narrative is tragic. Having been described as being righteous and unblemished in his generation, and having alone been spared with his family from death in the deluge on account of his great piety and rectitude, Noah’s first act following the flood was to plant a vine and to succumb to drunkenness.
More tragic still is the rabbinic interpretation of the reaction of Noah to his son Ham’s attitude to the nakedness of his father during his drunken stupor. Noah curses his youngest son viciously for his disrespectful behavior. Clearly, the sages believed that Noah’s extreme reaction to Ham's behavior reflected something far more heinous than merely looking at his naked body. Such an act of disrespect may well have provoked indignation. But it could hardly, in itself, have justified the terrible curse that Noah uttered against Ham. It is for this reason that the sages suggest that Ham was guilty of an unspeakable act.
Rashi, citing the sages, suggests that Ham did more than simply gaze upon the nakedness of the hapless Noah. According to one view, he castrated him (sirso). According to another, he had homosexual intercourse with him.(riv’o).
The rabbinic imagination appears to have run wild in elaborating on the Noah narratives. It is, however, a truism that the more fantastic a midrash, the more profound the truth it conceals. I should like to suggest that the midrashim cited by Rashi convey a very profound truth. They represent the rabbinic view of human responses to holocaust.
The flood had caused destruction of almost indescribable magnitude. Apart from one human family and the animals that had been herded onto the ark, no human or animal life survived. Everything was destroyed. We can well imagine the horrified reaction of that single human family to the utter devastation they witnessed after the flood. Nothing familiar remained. Their friends were dead. Their civilization was washed away. Countless dreams had been dashed; countless projects were to be forever unfulfilled. Whatever humankind had built on earth was utterly destroyed. Cosmos had become chaos.
We can best understand the rabbinic musings about the sin of Ham against the background of this destruction, desolation and despair. According to both views cited by Rashi, Ham’s behavior was a response to his personal experience of holocaust.
According to the view that Ham’s sin was castrating of his father (sirso), Ham’s reaction to holocaust was his conviction that it would be grievously wrong to bring children into a world that was vulnerable to death, desolation and destruction.
This kind of thinking was fairly common among survivors of Hitler’s holocaust. Decent men and women, who had witnessed the murder of beloved husbands, wives, parents and innocent children, determined that there was no place for another generation of potential victims in a world that could tolerate a Hitler, and a world in which little children could be mercilessly exterminated. Better, they thought, that there should be no new life at all than life devalued, dehumanized and cruelly snuffed out.
The second rabbinic elaboration on Ham’s sin was that he had been guilty not only of a forbidden homosexual relationship, but also of incest with his father. It was as if all taboos had been rejected, as if it no longer made sense to exercise restraints of any kind, as if there were no legitimate limits to indulging the pleasures of the flesh, as if instant gratification were all that made sense in an insane existence.
This, too, is a common response to holocaust. In the face of death and destruction, surrounded with inescapable evidence of the meaningless of life, it makes no sense to many people to restrict their enjoyment of life’s fleeting pleasures. Understood in this light, this rabbinic interpretation of Ham’s behavior is simply a recasting of the classical adage: “Eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die.”
In a sense, the two interpretations of Ham’s response to holocaust are not much different. Each denies that life has meaning. Each is life negating.
Happily, there is a third response to holocaust—that of Ham’s brothers. They refused to let go of principle in the face of hopelessness. They adhere to standards of decent social conduct in the face of death and destruction. In a word, they affirm life even in the deepest depths of the valley of the shadow of death.
To be sure, each of the brothers affirmed life in his own way. Yefet, the father of aesthetics, insisted that beauty and harmony can exist even in a world that is defined by destruction and death. Shem, the progenitor of the Jewish people, asserted that we affirm life by insisting on decency, justice, and civilized moral standards. Even though human kind is vulnerable, and the future is always uncertain, the present moment must be invested with meaning. In this, Shem predates Viktor Frankl, who taught that man’s search for meaning alone enables survival in even the most dehumanizing situations.
Human response to holocaust, insecurity and vulnerability, can be to deny life and human value. But it can also be to affirm those things, to insist that there is value bringing children into the world and to find transcendent meaning in our allotted time. This is the Jewish response. It is the lesson that the sages teach in what, at first blush, appears to be a fantastic and far-fetched selection of midrashim.