This week’s SBM alumni d’var torah is from Ezra Newman.
The story of the destruction of man as told in Parshat Noach does not start with an act of total villainy that leads directly to total destruction. Rather, a close reading of the flood narrative shows that the process is a gradual one, one that in fact starts at the end of Parshat Bereishit. There, the reader is confronted with a most unusual three verses.
:בראשית פרק ו
(א) ויהי כי החל האדם לרב על פני האדמה ובנות ילדו להם
(ב) ויראו בני האלהים את בנות האדם כי טבת הנה ויקחו להם נשים מכל אשר בחרו
(ג) ויאמר יקוק לא ידון רוחי באדם לעלם בשגם הוא בשר והיו ימיו מאה ועשרים שנה
These verses raise many questions. Who are the Bnei Elohim? Who are the Bnot Adam? What action did the Bnei Elohim and Bnot Adam do that was so sinful that it required such a seemingly harsh punishment from God? And what does the punishment have to do with the sin? And what is the connection, if there is any at all, between this story and the flood narrative which immediately follows it?
There is an argument in Bereishit Rabbah and among medieval commentators as to whether the Bnei Elohim were human beings or some sort of higher beings. If one was to argue that the Bnei Elohim were some sort of higher beings, one could theoretically understand God’s anger at their actions. However, this approach makes God’s reaction and punishment of mankind all the more confusing. The easier explanation is to say that they were human beings, albeit ones with elevated status. Rashi argues that they were sons of judges or other officers.
However, if the Bnei Elohim were regular human beings, what is so problematic about them taking wives and having children? The key to understanding this is in the second of the two verses. The second verse indicates to us that the actions of the Bnei Elohim were not based on mutual feeling. They were unilateral. The men saw beautiful women and took them, without any input from or regard for the women at all.
This is where Rashi’s explanation provides us with such a morally powerful lesson. The people performing these actions weren’t higher spiritual beings. They weren’t even people in positions of authority. They were merely sons of judges and officers. They were people who believed themselves to be in positions of authority. And they used these supposed positions of privilege to take advantage of others.
God’s response is to cut down on man’s privilege. Man up until that point had been allowed to live to a very advanced age. As one grows in age, they often grow in authority, and find their accountability lessening. God needs to put a stop to that. God decides that the only way to stop man from taking advantage of others is to curtail part of his privilege.
However, this problem does not go away, and it eventually leads to more punishment. Whether one translates “חמס” as “thievery” or something else, it still is inherently a sin of one being taking advantage of another, through their property or some other medium.
The flood is meant to stop people from taking advantage of each other. God makes a simple decision here. If there are no people, no one can take advantage of another. However, despite God’s best efforts, even after the flood we see the same problem cropping up again.
Noach, after surviving the flood and exiting the ark, gets drunk off the vineyard he plants and uncovers his nakedness. The next verse tells of how Ham, his son, takes advantage of his nakedness. But the verse is very ambiguous. It doesn’t tell us of anything specific that Ham did. It just says that he viewed his father’s nakedness. Yet for some reason this is bad enough to warrant a curse from his father.
What Ham did is a different form of taking advantage than what we saw with the Bnei Elohim. Ham is not inherently in any particular position of privilege. His father is the one who has degraded himself. Yet Ham’s actions were inappropriate not because of what he did, but rather what he didn’t do. Ham’s brothers, Shem and Yafet, go out of their way to help their father, to cover up his nakedness, after he has lowered himself to such a state. Yet Ham does not think of helping his father. Instead he runs to tell his brothers. One can imagine him reacting as if he had seen something very funny, running to tell his brothers while giggling “come, look at this!”
In the past couple of weeks, we have sadly seen the problem of taking advantage of others become a major issue in the Modern Orthodox community. It is incumbent upon us to remember that we, as human beings, have no right to take advantage of others. This applies whether we are in a position of authority, or even if someone around us has done something degrading to themselves. Our constant thoughts need to be on how we can help others and make their lives better, not selfishly on how we can help ourselves and make our own lives better. Even if a person uncovers their own nakedness, that does not give another the right to exploit it.