Parashat Noach: The Holy and the Mundane

[Tal Chermon]

Noach's sin of intoxication led to the exposure of the different elements in the human race. Each of Noach's three sons had a specific spiritual character. Shem was holy, Yefet was secular and mundane, and Cham was impure and unholy. Noach blessed the G-d of the holy Shem: "Blessed be Hashem, the G-d of Shem" (Bereshit 9:26). Shem is the great believer who cleaves to G-d, and in whose very soul the Divine Presence resides. It is he that is connected to the Divine, spiritual source of all existence. Only we, the Nation of Israel, spearhead this ideology of Shem in the world (even though the Arabs also are called "Semites," i.e. "from Shem"). Malki-Tzedek, the priest of G-d the Most High, was naturally the King of Yerushalayim, where he met Avraham Avinu and blessed him: "Blessed be Avram of G-d, the Most High, Maker of heaven and earth" (ibid. 14:18-20). He was none other than Shem, who is now very old. This blessing embodied Shem's spiritual heritage. G-d is lofty, spiritual and heavenly, "Most High," but He is also the "Maker of heaven and earth" and actively controls all the forces at work in the world. By bringing bread and wine to Avram, Malki-Tzedek transferred to him his role as High Priest, and his spiritual heritage. Finally after nine generations, he had found a person who could continue his mission in the world. "He (Malki-Tzedek) revealed to him the laws of the High Priesthood and he also revealed Torah to him" (Bereshit Rabbah 43 and see Nedarim 32b).

Yefet embodies all secular matters. Noach blessed Yefet with a play of words on his name: "Yaft Elokim Le-Yefet." Rashi quotes the Targum Onkolos which explains the word "Yaft" as meaning to enlarge or extend. The blessing thus means: May Hashem enable you to extend and broaden man's physical existence in the world (Bereshit 9:27 with Rashi). His task is to develop all the secular matters in the world such as mathematics, physics, meta-physics, music and the like. Even his involvement in metaphysics is only in the secular sphere of human knowledge as opposed to Shem who is preoccupied with the spiritual side of existence with faith in Hashem.

There is, however, no clash between Shem and Yefet since there is no contradiction between holy matters and secular matters. When there is a firm basis of inner faith, then there is room for external expansion and for the development of human culture and science. Noach's blessing was: "May Hashem enable Yefet to expand our existence but may he dwell in the tents of Shem."

On one occasion, our Rabbi, Ha-Rav Tzvi Yehudah Kook, traveled on a boat together with Saul Tschernichowski (Hebrew poet and writer born in Russia in the Jewish year 5633 - about 130 years ago). Tschernichowski held a poetry evening on which he read some of his literary creations. The following morning, he asked Rav Tzvi Yehudah if he was interested in hearing his poems. Our Rabbi agreed. Tschernichowski, poised theatrically, began reciting his poems with great pathos. On completion, he said to our Rabbi: "You surprised me. As I was reciting I peeked at you and saw that you were actually listening." Rav Tzvi Yehudah replied: "And why not?" To this the poet said: "What do you, people concerned with religion and holy matters, have to do with secular poetry?" Our Rabbi answered: "There is no incompatibility between holy matter and mundane, secular things. The conflict is between holiness and unholiness. Here there is an uncompromising battle." Our Rabbi concluded: "Thus, perhaps it's feasible that you remedy your family situation" (Tschernichowski was married to a gentile woman, which is a cardinal sin in Judaism. It is in the sphere of "unholiness"). Tschernichowski thought for a moment and then answered: "Perhaps." Perhaps at that moment he had thought of repentance.

In contrast to Yefet, Cham is problematic. He is easily excited to promiscuous actions. He is the epitome of unholiness and impurity in mankind. We do not meet him half way. It is impossible for holiness to be connected in any way with unholiness. "Hashem wages a war against Amalek in all generations" (Shemot 17:16).