Vort from the Rav: Noach

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Genesis 9:23

וַיִּקַּח שֵׁם וָיֶפֶת אֶת הַשִּׂמְלָה …וַיְכַסּוּ אֵת עֶרְוַת אֲבִיהֶם –
And Shem and Japheth took the garment…and they covered their father’s nakedness.

Rashi explains the use of the singular וַיִּקַּח emphasizing that Shem initiated the activity of covering his father, with Japheth later joining him. Our sages indicate that as a reward for covering their father’s nakedness, Shem merited that his descendants would be given the mitzvah of tzitzis, while the reward for Japheth was that his descendent Gog would merit burial (Ez. 39:11, Bereishis Rabbah 36:6). Shem and Japheth had differing motivations for their action; Shem was motivated by ethics, while Japheth was motivated by etiquette. Ethics as a value obligates man to do what is proper, even when there is no one to witness and appreciate his action. Upon seeing Noah’s nakedness, Shem immediately acted to save his father from embarrassment. His descendants were thus given the mitzvah of tzitzis, because according to the basic halacha, the talis katan should be worn under ones clothing, with only the fringes exposed. The mitzvah of donning a piece of clothing that is not readily visible is a reflection of Shem’s emphasis on ethics in the private domain. In contrast, Japheth was motivated by appearance and peer pressure. Japheth helped cover Noah only after Shem had taken the initiative, acting only because Shem would appreciate this help. As a result, Japheth’s reward was the burial of his progeny, as burial reflects the concept of kavod habriyos, human dignity, a religious category that dictates how one person should relate to another. (Nefesh Harav, p. 272-3)

About Arnold Lustiger

Dr. Arnold Lustiger is a research scientist and has edited multiple volumes of the Rav's Torah, including the recently published Chumash Mesoras HaRav.

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