Parashat Noah: Like father, like son

The name Canaan appears for the first time in the story of the degradation of Noah. Canaan was not one of his sons, but rather his grandson, a son of Ham.

noah ark 88 (photo credit: )
noah ark 88
(photo credit: )
"Noah, the man of the earth… drank of the wine, became drunk, and uncovered himself within his tent. Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father's nakedness and told his two brothers outside." - (Genesis 9:20-22) The name Canaan appears for the first time in this story of the degradation of Noah. Canaan was not one of his sons, but rather his grandson, a son of Ham. The truth is that mentioning Canaan here seems totally out of place and superfluous. Noah became drunk, perhaps only because he did not realize the evil potential of the fruit of the vine. His son Ham does nothing to hide his father's shame; he serves as talebearer, reporting his father's nakedness to his brothers outside. Shem and Japheth cover their father without looking at him in order to protect their father's honor. Ham is the villain; Shem and Japheth are the heroes. Why mention Canaan? And even more to the point, Canaan is a super-charged name; after all, the Land of Canaan is the Land of Israel, which will ultimately be taken over by Abraham (Abram) and his progeny, descendants of Shem. There must be a very special significance to the mention of Canaan precisely at this biblical juncture, just before the text records the descendants of Noah and the nations which they generate. The majority of traditional commentators explain the inclusion of Canaan by suggesting that Canaan castrated his grandfather. Apparently there was an oral tradition which reported this action. This was what Ham really saw and reported to his brothers - the ultimate degradation. In order to further understand the biblical text and its significance today, we must take a look at the next time the Land of Canaan appears in the Bible, right at the end of our Torah portion: "And Terah took his son Abram, and Lot the son of Haran his grandson, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, wife of Abram his son, and they departed with them from Ur Kasdim to set out for the Land of Canaan; they arrived at Haran and settled there." (Genesis 11:31) It is curious that the biblical text tells us Abram's father meant to go to the Land of Canaan but never really arrived; he only reached Haran where, for whatever reason, he chose or was forced (perhaps by illness or old age, or the lack of means to complete the journey) to remain. Only one verse later, and as the opening of the next Torah portion, God appears to Abram without any prior buildup, commanding him to "go away from your land, your relatives and your father's house [in Haran] to the land that I will show you [the Land of Canaan]." The commentators, as well as the Midrash, are hard pressed to discover why God is now electing Abram, and why he is so willing to obey the divine command. Maimonides suggests, on the basis of the Midrash, that the renamed Abraham had begun his quest to discover the Ruler of the Universe at the tender age of three. He even cites the famous Midrash that Abraham's father Terah was an idol maker, thereby positioning Abraham as an iconoclast. Abraham is the first purely self-motivated penitent in history (Mishne Torah, Laws of Idolatry, Chapter 1). But I would argue that the simple reading of the text leads to a very different conclusion. Abraham's father Terah apparently wanted very much to bring his family to Canaan. Indeed, our Torah reading will soon record how, when Abraham successfully conquered the four terrorist kings of the region, Melchizedek, the king of Salem and priest of God the Most High, brought him bread and wine and blessed God for having delivered Abraham's enemies into his hand (Genesis 14:18-20). Abraham even gives Melchizedek tithes - a gift that one usually would give to the priests of the Holy Temple. And Salem is the ancient name for Jeru-Salem, which means City of Peace. Apparently in the Land of Canaan, of which Salem is the capital, there was a tradition harking all the way back to Adam of ethical monotheism, of a God of the universe who will ultimately destroy terrorists and reward righteous lovers of peace. Keeping in mind the Midrash's understanding of Melchizedek, perhaps Terah, having heard of the ethical monotheism being taught in Canaan, wanted his children to be brought up in that environment. From this perspective, Abraham is not a rebel but a continuer of his father's geographical and spiritual journey. God is pretty certain that Abraham will accept the divine command because he has been primed to do so, since he is the son of Terah. In the story with which we began our discussion, the Bible is setting the stage for a Land of Canaan that is a special location, with very specific ethical requirements. Only those who truly aspire to ethical monotheism will be worthy of making Canaan, Israel, their eternal homeland. Canaan the grandson of Noah forfeited his right because, instead of following in his grandfather's paths of righteousness and wholeheartedness, he chose to destroy his grandfather's ability to pass these values on to succeeding generations. Abraham, on the other hand, continued on the path of his father and endeavored to create a household dedicated to righteousness and justice. The descendants of Abraham will be privileged to live in Israel only for as long as they subscribe to such an ethical lifestyle. And even if Bnei Yisrael eventually return to the land and are worthy of living in it, their return will always be dependent on the ethical quality of the daily lives they lead. As Rashi warns us in his very opening of the Book of Genesis, "...the entire land [Canaan - Israel] belongs to the Holy One Blessed be He; He created it and He will give it to whomever is righteous in His eyes…." (Genesis 1:1, Rashi) Shabbat shalom The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.