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Rabbi Doniel Staum - Parshas Noach 5775 "A Father Figure"
by Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

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The pre-war Torah community of Telshe, Lithuania boasted the great Telshe Yeshiva[1]. On one occasion, the heads of the Yeshiva as well as the leaders of the community convened to discuss what they felt was a breakdown in the level of respect and reverence which the students and youth maintained for their teachers and elders. Many of the leading Rabbinic figures of the Yeshiva expressed their indignation for the rising level of disrespect, and offered viable solutions about how to remedy the situation.

When the meeting was about to adjourn the assemblage turned to the father of the Telshe Rav[2] who was the eldest of the group. In deference to his seniority as well as his personal righteousness they asked him to offer a closing thought. The elderly Rav stood up and related a concise but poignant five-word speech: “א מכובד איז מנען מכבד – To a respectable person people give respect.” With that he sat down.

His message was that the esteemed assemblage themselves had to bear some responsibility. The breakdown of respect stemmed from the fact that they, the leaders, were not as deserving of respect as their predecessors were. If they would increase their own level of respectability the students would indeed respect them more.[3]

After the floodwaters had subsided and the inhabitants of the Ark departed to rebuild humankind, the Torah records that Noach made a tragic mistake. “Noach, the man of the earth, debased himself and planted a vineyard. He drank of the wine and became drunk, and he uncovered himself within his tent. Cham, the father of Canaan, saw his father’s nakedness and told his two brother’s outside. And Shem and Yafes took a garment, laid it upon both their shoulders, and they walked backwards, and covered their father’s nakedness; their faces were turned away and they did not see their father’s nakedness.”[4]

When Noach awoke from his stupor and realized what had occurred he prophesized by foretelling the destiny of his children.

Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch explained that these prophecies were the most far-reaching prophecies ever uttered. Noach essentially encapsulated the entire course of human history: “Cursed is Canaan; a slave of slaves he shall be to his brothers…Blessed is Hashem, the G-d of Shem, and let him be a slave to them. Let G-d extend Yafes, but he will dwell in the tents of Shem; may Canaan be a slave to them.”[5]

Why does the Torah reiterate that Cham was “the father of Canaan” before mentioning the inappropriate debacle with his father?

Rabbi Hirsch explains that two of the greatest adversaries Klal Yisroel would face at the genesis of our nationhood were Mitzrayim (Egypt) and Canaan. The Egyptian and Canaanite nations - who were both descendants of Cham - were exceedingly corrupt, with rampant debauchery and immorality.

In this seminal event, where Cham shamed his father, lies the root of his descendant’s degeneracy and depravity. In the eloquence of Rabbi Hirsch: “The whole world of humanity is built on the relation of children to their parents…. As long as children see in their parents the depository of G-d’s mission, do not regard the bodily material, but the spiritual being in them, out of whose hands they receive their spiritual being, for so long mankind flourishes like a tree. But if, on the other hand, this factor is quite absent from the minds of the children… if reverence of the child for its parent is absent, then the stem is cut through which out of the past should make the future spring forth even nobler. Then, the younger generation considers itself only as the יורש (inheritor) of the older and, as the more vigorous, supplants the older decrepit generation and steps into its shoes. ירש to dispossess someone…

“In Israel, the relation is to be of one generation following the other, נחלה, a stream, a flow; there the older generation hands over its strength and powers, its spiritual and material treasures, to the younger. Elsewhere, each generations wants to start afresh, does not want to learn anything from the past, each generation is a new and different aspect of life on earth, and what the future will be remains to be seen. There[6] the source of strength and power comes from above, the stream flows; the spiritual mission is handed over from the older, through the middle, to the younger generation… Kibbud av v’em is the foundation for the development of mankind.”

When children have no reason to respect their parents it upsets the foundation of tradition. The new generation does not wish to be connected with a past that is unworthy and therefore it looks away from its roots and seeks to forge its own path with its own ideas. They seek to sever the bond that would otherwise connect them with their illustrious ancestors and heritage.

In his commentary a few verses later Rabbi Hirsch captures the root of the depravity of the nations of Canaan and Mitzrayim: “It is deeply affecting that Noach pronounces the curse for Cham in his child, and this expresses the momentous warning: If Cham does not wish to be punished for the future of Canaan, let him not sin against Noach. The sin which children commit against parents punishes itself by the way their children treat them. And just as in private families, this law applies to the development of whole generations of mankind. Only where the younger generation stands with respect on the grave of the by-gone one, draws a cloak over its lapses but takes to itself all that it had of nobility, truth, and greatness as a valuable inheritance on which to build further of its own life, is the development of the generations a tree that progressively develops in new blossoms.

“But as soon as the younger generation gloats over the “nakedness” of the fathers, and because of their human frailties mocks at their great spiritual; traditions; as soon as the future jeeringly tears asunder the bond with the past, their own future is also a dream, and just as they jeer at the memories of their forefathers so will their grandchildren jeer at them – Cham is always the father of Canaan.”[7]

The reason why Canaan and Egypt became so immoral is because Cham saw his father in a negative fashion, as a spiritually feeble individual. Rabbi Hirsch concludes: “When Israel had been led to the border of the land whose inhabitants were to be cleared out for Israel to build up a pure mode of life, degeneration and its results were shown to them, and they were told: ‘See, this degeneration had its beginnings in the first disrespect with which the ancestor of this nation behaved towards his father’.”

It is not merely a matter of custom that a man sits at the head of his Shabbos table. He has an obligation to earn the position. It’s a privilege that is attached to the responsibilities that come with being the ‘man of the house’. One must be a role model for his children, a guide for his family, and a proper husband. A father has a responsibility to be a leader and a guide for his family, a worthy recipient of the respect that is accorded to him.[8]

In a sense, the father’s responsibility and the importance of the relationship he forges with his children, goes a step further. From a psychological standpoint it is well-known that a person’s connection with G-d and religion is strongly influenced and impacted by his connection with his parents, most notably his father. This is most obviously true because in numerous prayers we refer to G-d as our Heavenly Father. Furthermore, our first and foremost connection to a “being” which loves us unconditionally but yet demands and expects of us, is our parents. Thus, on an emotional and subconscious level, our conception of G-d is interconnected with our relationship with our parents.[9] A father therefore has the added responsibility of being loving and devoted to his children while at the same time being firm and unyielding in regards to his expectations and the values he holds dear.

All of these important components were missing from the patriarchy of Cham’s family. In a poetic fashion we can conclude that when Cham sits at the head of the table the children at that table will grow up to be Mitzrayim and Canaan.[10]

“"א מכובד איז מנען מכבד

“Cham,the father of Canaan, saw…”

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[1] Today the Yeshiva has been supplanted in America in three different locations, near Cleveland Ohio, Riverdale NY, and Chicago, Illinois

[2] I assume it was Rabbi Avrohom Shmuel Gordon, the father of Rabbi Lazer Gordon zt’l.

[3] Heard from Rabbi Mordechai Finkelman shlita, who heard it second-hand from Harav Mordechai Gifter zt’l.

[4] Bereishis 9:20-23

[5] Bereishis 9:25-27

[6] i.e. in Klal Yisroel however

[7] My Rebbe, Rabbi Berel Wein, captured this idea in one succinct quote: “G-d pays back all children by making them parents.”

[8] I heard this idea from my friend and colleague, Rabbi Donny Frank. He related to me that he mentioned this point during a lecture he gave about marriage to a group of young men.

[9] It is tragically not uncommon for a child raised by abusive, overly austere, or derelict parents to have a difficult time with religious observance and belief in G-d.

[10] It is important to note that blaming one’s parents for one’s failures and lack of accomplishment in life is a tremendously futile and purposeless. Even when it is true, one has the responsibility to invest the effort to transcend his challenges and to build himself into a worthy individual to the best of his ability. The Skverer Rebbe shlita notes that in the opening verse of the parsha it states, “These are the descendants of Noach: Noach…” Noach himself was his own greatest offspring. As Rashi writes, “For the descendants of the righteous are their good deeds.” Despite the fact that Noach lived in a world of utter corruption and lawlessness, he himself was a righteous and G-d-fearing person because he transformed himself into such an individual. He was his own greatest disciple!

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