Beit Midrash

  • Family and Society
  • The Value of the Nation of Israel
To dedicate this lesson
Translated by Hillel Fendel

The Source of Israel's Uniqueness

The uniqueness of the People of Israel does not begin with the appearance of the people of Israel, but well before that. As R. Yehuda HaLevy says in his classic work HaKuzari, we already see differences between people starting from the days of Adam HaRishon – the first human being to live on the face of the earth – and we comprehend that not everyone is equal.


Rabbi Chaim Avihau Schwartz

Nissan 6 5781
1. Human Specialness

The uniqueness of the People of Israel does not begin with the appearance of the people of Israel, but well before that. As R. Yehuda HaLevy says in his classic work HaKuzari, we already see differences between people starting from the days of Adam HaRishon – the first human being to live on the face of the earth – and we comprehend that not everyone is equal.

For instance, in the first generations mentioned in the Torah, we already see some men who were simply a cut above the rest: Adam, Seth, Enosh, Keinan, Mahalel ... We see this clearly in the Torah portions of Noah and Lekh Lekha, as we will see.

2. Noah's Three Sons

The world after the Great Flood was not in great shape, to put it mildly. Mankind had been all but destroyed, and no animal life remained – except for the living creatures on Noah's Ark. As G-d said: "The end of all flesh has come before Me, and I will destroy them" (B'reshit 6,13). Who was left alive in the Ark? Noah, his sons, and their wives – just eight people remained from all of humanity. The Ark retained the continuity of the world, and became the essence of the different nations that were to arise and be established on the ruins of the previous world.

When Noah and his family emerged from the Ark, the Torah tells us that Noah planted a vineyard (9,20). Based on the verb used there, Rashi explains that he "made himself profane," because he should first have planted something more valuable.

And as we know, Noah "drank from the vineyard's wine, became drunk, and was uncovered in his tent" (verse 21). Perhaps he removed his clothing because he was hot, possibly from the wine. Or, as some commentators explained, the Hebrew word "uncovered" comes from the same root as "rolled around," meaning that Noah was walking like a drunk; if you just touch him lightly, he could fall down and roll around on the floor.

In any event, his middle son Ḥam "saw his father's nakedness and went to tell his brothers" (verse 22). What did Ḥam's two brothers do? They "took the garment and placed it over their shoulders, and they walked backwards to cover their father, without seeking his nakedness" (verse 23). The Torah emphasizes that Ḥam saw but did nothing, while Shem and Yefet took action, making sure not to see. This is strong criticism of Ḥam: He saw his father in his disgrace, but did nothing; he simply didn't care. All he did was tell his brothers!

But Shem and Yefet have a plan. They take the cloak to cover him, and make sure both to put an end to their father's disgrace and not to see him in the process. What ethical refinement on their part!

The Torah then tells us that when Noah awakened from his stupor, "he knew what his little son [Ḥam] had done to him" (verse 24). But didn't we just see that he did nothing but tell his brothers? Apparently not! The Gemara tells us that he did something very grave – he either castrated his father, or sodomized him. This is shocking! And what is also very surprising is that one man could beget three such different sons! Three surviving remnants of all of humanity – and look at the differences between them as they set out to build a new world! Ḥam is the height of moral depravity, while Shem and Yefet sought to do good.

However, even between these two "good" brothers there is a difference. In Hebrew, "they took" and "he took" are not the same verb; one is singular and one is plural. And so when the verse says that Shem and Yefet "covered their father," it uses the plural form, but regarding their taking the cloak in the first place, the singular is used, with attribution to Shem. It was actually Shem who initiated the entire idea! He took the cloak and suggested to Yefet that they use it to cover their father; it was Shem's plan, and he got his brother to help out.

And so, the three brothers all have different traits: Shem is a man of unique gentility and nobility, Yefet joins with Shem when asked, and Ḥam is the absolute opposite of Shem.

3. How Noah Related to the Three

As we saw, the Torah says that when Noah awoke, he realized what Ḥam had done to him – and he imprecated him severely: "Cursed is Canaan [Ḥam's son; see below], a slave of slaves shall he be to his brothers" (verse 25). Rashi explains that Noah was appalled at Ḥam for having caused him not to have a fourth son to serve him, and therefore cursed him that his fourth son – Canaan – would end up serving the descendants of his [Noah's] other two sons who remained to serve him.

Noah continued and blessed Shem and Yefet: "Blessed be the Lord, the G-d of Shem, and may Canaan be a slave to him. May G-d expand Yefet, and may He dwell in the tents of Shem, and may Canaan be a slave to them" (verses 26-27). Noah was expressing here a form of prophecy, of Spirit of Holiness that most certainly gives these words eternal significance. G-d wrote these words in the Torah for everlasting value, meaning that He grants them an eternal endorsement.

As we have stated, there is a tremendous difference between the sons of Noah. Canaan is the essence of Ḥam, and later, of all of Ḥam's sons, who all are concentrated around Canaan. We see this in several different places. Perhaps also the very fact that Canaan merited to receive, temporarily, parts of the Land of Israel – which was long known as the Land of Canaan – expresses the fact that Canaan took center stage in the Ḥam family. And therefore, the curse on Ḥam can actually be said to be upon Canaan.

The opposite of Ḥam is Shem. Noah blessed him whole-heartedly, as we saw above. But why, in this blessing, did Noah call G-d "the G-d of Shem?" Is He not the G-d of the entire world?!

Yes, it is true that G-d created the entire world and all that is in it. Still and all, He is called "the G-d of Shem," He is special to Shem, and He places His Name and His Presence upon Shem. The blessing then continues, May G-d expand Yefet (as per Targum Unkelos and Rashi) – Noah wishes to bestow upon Yefet expanded life, expansion in technology, and the like. And in fact, the nations of Yefet as we know them today – the Western nations, beginning with those of Europe, and America as well – are very technologically developed. They have abundance of life.

Rav Tzvi Yehuda Kook added another dimension to Noah's blessing to Yefet: The verb used in the blessing is from the root meaning "beauty" – as is the word Yefet – and the blessing is that G-d should give Yefet and his descendants a special taste for beauty, a strong connection to esthetics, and to the material aspects of life altogether.

In other words: The external aspects of life in beauty and in breadth – that is Yefet's "thing."

Another important aspect of this blessing is that the subject is not Yefet, but G-d – and it is G-d Who is to "dwell in the tents of Shem." Yefet will have beauty, esthetics, external development, and technological development. But Shem will have the Divine Presence! G-d will dwell amidst Shem!

And so we see a division of all humanity into three very different currents. One current, that of Ḥam, is cursed, subhuman, slaves of slaves. The current of Yefet is that of external completion. But Shem – he stands for inner life perfection, Divine Presence, and cleaving to G-d. Our loving, compassionate, and all-mighty G-d is the "G-d of Shem."

4. The Patriarch Avraham – the Continuation of Shem

In the Torah portion of Lekh Lekha, which takes place after the Flood and introduces us to our great Patriarch Avraham, we see how the Torah focuses on the Shem lineage of humanity. In the preceding portion, Parshat Noah, the Torah recounts the descendants of all of Noah's sons – the Seventy Nations of the World – but with a special emphasis on the pedigree of Shem. Among his descendants we find Shelach, Ever, and Avraham.

At this point comes the dramatic breakthrough in world history: "G-d told Avram, go ye from your land, from your birthplace, and from your father's home, to the Land that I will show you – and I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great" (12, 1-2). Hashem tells him to leave everything behind and go to a new land that He will show him – and why? So that he can become a "great nation." This is a new concept – for until now there have been nations, but now there will be a "great nation." This is a special value of life.

And so we see that from the very beginning, mankind is divided into different streams, different types, different strengths. And out of this emerges, in the course of the generations, Avraham Avinu – who is told to leave his home, so that he can become a "great nation." It is G-d Who makes us into a great nation, and not us ourselves. This is how Creation works, this is the order of the revelation of Divine life amidst Creation: the formation of the "great nation" of Israel.

"I have created this nation, they will sing My praise" (Isaiah 43,21) – and from this, "It will be, in the end of days, the mountain of G-d's House will be established upon the mountain tops… and all the nations will stream to it" (2,2).

May we, with G-d's help, see this speedily in our days.
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