The Four Questions
The opening verse of this parsha states:
“These are the offspring of Noach. Noach was a perfectly righteous man…”
No mention, however, is made of the names of his children until we scroll down to the next verse: “And Noach fathered three sons, Shem, Cham and Yafes.”
Four questions have been asked:
First, why does the Torah fail to name his sons in the first verse after the words “And these are the offspring of Noach?” Why does the Torah interrupt the description of his children with words of praise for Noach?
Second, why does the Torah have to mention the names of his three sons at all? Their names have already been mentioned in the end of last week’s parsha.
Third, why emphasize that he had three sons? It is quite evident from the listing of their names that he had three.
Fourth, Yafes was the eldest son. Why then are the sons not listed in chronological order?
A Tzadik’s Primary Children
Rashi points us toward an answer for the first question by stating that, in fact, a righteous person’s primary offspring are their good deeds. As we shall see, Rashi’s answer will further provide us with a basis to answer the other three questions:
Since the primary offspring of righteous people are their good deeds, it follows that the mention of Noach’s three biological children was intended to teach us about the three spiritual qualities that a tzadik possesses and which we should emulate. We know who Noach’s biological children were; they were listed in last week’s parsha.
Furthermore, the message conveyed by the Torah’s stressing that Noach had three sons and then listing them out of chronological order, is that one must incorporate all three of these traits and do so in the order they are mentioned in the Torah. The Torah’s order reflects the order of their spiritual character: first Shem, then Cham and then Yafes.
Three Sons; Three Traits
The following is based on a brief comment in the Chassidic commentary Or Hatorah, from Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch, (known as the Tzemach Tzedek, the third Rebbe of Chabad) and from the teachings of the Ba’al Shem Tov’s senior disciple, Rabbi Yaakov Yosef of Polno’eh in his work Ben Poras Yosef.
The three sons of Noach represent the three primary Divine attributes and their parallel soul powers:
Shem represents chesed-kindness-love, Cham epitomizes gevurah-strength-judgment and Yafes signifies tiferes-beauty-harmony-compassion.
The Tzemach Tzedek, however, does not explain how the three son’s names correspond to the three attributes of chesed, gevurah and Tiferes. The following is an attempt to match the attributes to the three names.
Shem and Kindness
The word “Shem” means “name.” On a simple level, it relates to the way a person’s righteousness gives a person a good name. When a person’s behavior is exemplary, his or her reputation will spread far and wide.
Our Sages, in Ethics of the Fathers, extol the virtue of a good name and place it even above the crowns of Torah, priesthood and royalty.
Despite some interpretations that are critical of Noach’s lack of effort to save his generation, the Torah makes it abundantly clear that he was a “perfectly righteous person.” The mere fact that he was moral in a world where essentially everybody was immoral and corrupt speaks volumes of his inner strength and true righteousness. Indeed, the only person described in the Five Books of Moses as a tzadik was Noach.
However, as influential as one’s righteousness might be, one’s reputation will spread even farther and more forcefully through acts of kindness, as was the case with our first Patriarch, Abraham. His name spread throughout the region because of his kindness.
The name Shem can also be translated as “assessment.” According to the Talmud, the ideal person will not rest on his or her laurels, but will constantly assess his or her actions to see if they can be improved.
Abraham, the Torah states, would “always travel southward.” In Chassidic literature, south (when facing east) is on the right, which is associated with the trait of chesed. Abraham did not stay in one place. He always strove to reach higher and higher.
Thus, we find that Shem (whose other name was Malkitzedek) had a close association with his descendant Abraham because they shared the character of chesed and constant growth
Cham and Fire
The name Cham can be translated as “heat.” Fire is a powerful and destructive force. A tzadik has the capacity to destroy unsavory thoughts, speech and actions. A tzadik uses his power of gevurah to gain total self-mastery.
The Patriarch Yitzchak was associated with gevurah. His primary occupation was well digging. Metaphorically speaking, it means that he strove to remove the obstructions to the presence of inner holiness. This is consistent with the idea of Cham representing the heat that burns away the impediment to one’s spiritual growth.
In addition, a tzadik is not only one who does everything right, but one who is also imbued with Divine warmth and fiery passion.
The fiery passion that destroys evil is a necessary element in prayer. So, while Shem is representative of kindness, one of the three pillars upon which the world stands (Ethics of the Fathers Chapter 1:2), Cham also represents the pillar of service-prayer.
The reason Shem is mentioned first and then Cham is that one must give precedence to chesed over gevurah. Our primary goal is love with kindness which must be the motivation for all the other traits. Even when circumstances necessitate judgment and discipline, it must be motivated by and permeated with love and kindness. It must be “tough love,” with the emphasis on the love.
Yafes and the Inner Beauty of Torah
Yafes is related to the word for beauty and the attribute of tiferes. A righteous person possesses an inner beauty and instills that beauty in the performance of a Mitzvah. More specifically, tiferes is a description of the beauty of Torah study, the other pillar upon which the world stands.
In Chassidic parlance beauty is understood to refer to balance. True beauty is when we synthesize different traits/colors into one piece of art. The tzadik does not just serve G-d with one approach consistent with his or her own personality but incorporates opposite traits. The means to develop this balance derives from Torah, the Divine character of which possesses the power of synthesis and balance.
Shabbos the Source of Three Sons
According to the Chassidic work Bas Ayin, Noach, which means rest, is a metaphor for Shabbos. Hence the three sons of Noach are representative of three benefits we derive from Shabbos.
Shabbos generates love. As we say in our prayers, G-d gave us the Shabbos with love. It is a day of chesed, peace and love.
Shabbos also generates the power to destroy all evil forces as the Zohar states; it has the power of gevurah.
Shabbos is also associated with the power of Torah, as the Talmud states that the Torah was given on the Shabbos. Shabbos is therefore a day that we devote to increased Torah study.
Shabbos is a taste of the future Messianic Age; the eternal Shabby. It will feature unadulterated love, eradication of evil and all of the secrets of the Torah will be revealed.