"May I ask you a question?" the first snake says.
"You and your dumb questions!" replies the second. "What is it this time?"
"Do you know whether or not we are venomous?" asked the first snake.
"What difference should that make to us?!" said the second.
"It makes all the difference in the world to me," said the first snake. "I just bit my lip!"
This week's Torah portion presents the tale of Noah, a man who watches an entire world destroyed by a flood. Only a handful of people survive the disaster. What is the first thing Noah does as he emerges into an empty and desolate world, charged with the mission to rebuild civilization?
"Noah, the man of the earth," relates the Bible (1), "embarked on a new project: He planted a vineyard. He drank of the wine and became drunk and uncovered himself in his tent.
"Ham [one of Noah's sons], the father of Canaan, saw his father's nakedness and told his two brothers outside.
"Shem and Japheth [the other two sons of Noah) took a cloak, laid it upon both their shoulders, and they walked backward, and covered their father's nakedness; their faces were turned backward, and they saw not their father's nakedness."
This is a fascinating tale, deeply intriguing. But let us focus in on two aspects of this episode, among many others discussed in biblical commentary.
First, the Torah is not merely a book of historical tales and episodes. By identifying itself by the name Torah, which means "teaching," the Torah defines its own genre and mission statement: It will inform us what happened in the past only when events that occurred then have a bearing on what we need to know today; when they can teach us how we ought to live our lives (2). What, then, can we learn from this episode about Noah and his sons?
Second, anybody even slightly familiar with the Bible is aware of its unique conciseness. Complete sagas -- rich, complex and profound -- are often depicted in a few short verses. Each word in the Bible literally contains a myriad of interpretations in the realm of law, history, psychology, philosophy and mysticism.
For sages and rabbis over the past 3,300 years, it was clear that there is nary a superfluous word or letter in the Bible, and large sections of the Talmud are based on this premise. If a verse is lyrically repetitive, if two words are used where one would suffice or a longer word is used when a shorter word would do, there is a message here -- a new concept, another law (3).
Yet this story about the behavior of Noah's sons is replete with redundancy. Let us re-read the story: "Shem and Japheth took a cloak, laid it upon both their shoulders, and they walked backward, and covered their father's nakedness; their faces were turned backward, and they saw not their father's nakedness." Now, once the Bible states that "they walked backward," why does it repeat in the same sentence that "their faces were turned backward"? If you walk backward, obviously your face is turned backward.
The next question: Once the Bible tells us that they walked backward, and that their faces were turned backward, why does the Bible feel the need to conclude with the obvious: "They saw not their father's nakedness"? Certainly, if you are walking backward and your face is turned backward, you cannot see that which lies behind you!
The great 11th century French biblical commentator, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, known as Rashi, addresses the first question (4). His answer is simple: Though the two sons entered Noah's tent backward, ultimately, when they approached their naked father, they needed to turn their bodies around to cover him. So at that point their bodies were facing Noah, but they still turned their faces backward so as not to view Noah's nakedness.
Yet the second question still irks us: Why does the Torah feel compelled to conclude with the obvious statement that "they saw not their father's nakedness"? Wouldn't that be totally clear without this addition?
One could comfortably suggest that the Torah is employing here a symmetrical style. First it states that "Ham saw his father's nakedness." Then it concludes that "Sham and Japheth… saw not their father's nakedness."
Stylistically, this makes sense: Ham saw. Shem and Japheth saw not. Yet it is still superfluous. By stating that they walked backward and their faces were turned backward, it is clear that they did not see their father's nakedness.
Upon deeper reflection, however, we come to realize that this clearly stated contrast between the brothers - Ham saw; Shem and Japheth saw not - captures the essence of the story. The difference between the brothers, the Torah is attempting to indicate, was not merely behavioral in the sense that Ham saw Noah's nakedness and went to tell others about it, while his brothers went to cover Noah without gazing at his nudity. Rather, their behavioral differences stemmed from deeper psychological and emotional patterns: Ham saw; Shem and Japheth saw not. Their emotional perceptions of their father's intoxication and exposure differed profoundly.
A reading of Genesis suggests how it was that psychoanalysis began as a predominantly Jewish discipline. Long before Freud, the authors of ancient Israel had already begun to explore the uncharted realm of the human mind and heart; they saw this struggle with the emotions as the theater of the religious quest (5). This story with Noah and his children can serve as one more example of the psychoanalytical constructs that pervade all of Genesis.
To understand all of this, let us analyze an intriguing observation made in the 1700s by one of the greatest masters of Jewish spirituality and psychology: Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760), founder of the Chassidic movement.
Said the Baal Shem Tov (6): "Your fellow human being is your mirror. If your own face is clean, the image you perceive will also be flawless. But should you look at your fellow human being and see a blemish, it is your own imperfection that you are encountering; you are being shown what it is that you must correct within yourself. Therefore it follows, that a complete tzaddik (righteous person) does not see any evil in any person."
Now, this is a difficult concept to grasp and it sounds highly impractical. Say, for example, I invest money with you, and you betray me. You lie to my face, deny our original business deal and cause me tremendous financial loss. Is the Baal Shem Tov suggesting that if I were truly virtuous, I would not perceive you as a liar and a thief? Why not? Can't an innocent person call a spade a spade, and a thief a thief?
What if I see somebody abusing his or her children? If I see him for who he really is - a criminal abuser - and I call him such, does that mean that I, too, am guilty of this abominable crime? That is ludicrous. And how about if I observe somebody engaging in an immoral disgusting act; does it mean that I have committed the same sin? Is the Baal Shem Tov suggesting that righteousness must go hand-in-hand with naiveté? and denial of reality?
His observation, in fact, seems to stand against a fundamental principle of Judaism: that each of us has the duty to confront immoral behavior and to stand up to evil acts. In the words of the Bible (7), "You shall reprove and admonish your fellow man." But according to the Baal Shem Tov, when you encounter negativity in another person, you should actually see yourself as the source of the problem, because if you were pure and flawless, you surely would not have seen the dirt in this person. So instead of rebuking him, you should actually rebuke yourself?
On a personal note, I must share with you that I was privileged for many years to see and hear a great tzaddik, a true man of G-d, a passionate lover of humanity and an individual who cherished and internalized every teaching of the Baal Shem Tov. Yet I personally heard him numerous times admonishing wrong behavior. He reproached different individuals -- if it were in public, never with a name -- when he encountered them lying, gossiping, spreading hate, employing immoral violence, etc. Why did this tzaddik, a faithful disciple of the Baal Shem Tov, not say to himself that the negative behavior he was encountering in others was essentially a mirror of his own? If he were clean, he would not see it. So why rebuke them for his personal problem?
And how about the Baal Shem Tov himself? Many Chassidic tales relate how the Baal Shem Tov confronted various people for moral shortcomings and negative traits. How did the Baal Shem Tov, a tzaddik of extraordinary proportions, see all of this evil in others?
Two Ways of Seeing Negativity
Clearly, the Baal Shem Tov's words must be understood in a subtler fashion. He was not attempting to poison us with the modern day, sophisticated, open-mindedness pontificated in our universities and magazines that beheading human beings or blowing up children is not evil. This great Jewish thinker would not reform the fundamental Jewish teaching to see evil and obliterate it. As with all of his Chassidic teachings, he was merely exposing the inner soul behind the biblical instruction, "You shall reprove and admonish your fellow man."
What the Baal Shem Tov meant was this. There are two ways in which you can observe negativity in another person: 1) as a descriptive quality defining that individual; and 2) as a reality that calls for a particular response from you.
Eric and Billy both catch Sam in a blatant lie, or cheating. Yet, emotionally, their response is different.
Eric's emotional response:
This Sam is a miserable liar, a lowly piece of dirt, an obnoxious creep. I used to think Sam was a decent fellow. Now I discovered the truth: He is the scum of the earth. For the next few days, Eric is obsessed with the thought of what a low-life Sam really is. He may keep it to himself or, more likely, verbalize it to others, yet his heart is deeply consumed with hate, vengeance and evil descriptions of Sam.
Billy's emotional response:
What Sam did was really not good; it was wrong, unfair. It upsets me strongly. Now, what should I do about it? Should I confront him directly and speak to him about it? What would be the best way of going about that? Should I instead avoid confrontation and use far more caution in dealing with him? Is it my responsibility to warn other people about the risks of dealing with him?
Both people, Eric and Billy, observed the same behavior in Sam. None of them was naive about what transpired. Yet Eric is consumed with how horrible Sam is, while Billy focuses on how Sam's behavior should affect his own. Why the difference?
A Tale of Two Husbands
Here is another illustration.
Two husbands, David and Timmy, both love having guests over for dinner. They are social animals, and enjoy schmoozing and hanging out with people. Both of their wives, whom we shall give the same name of Judith, loathe having guests in their home. Once, during a conversation about this, they share with their husbands how deeply insecure they feel in the presence of guests. They are worried that they won't be able to "perform perfectly" and will come across as failures.
Both husbands hear the same "confession" coming from their wives, but they respond emotionally in two very different ways.
Why is Judith such an insecure person? Why can't she ever get her life together? She must be really messed up and require years of therapy. Couldn't I have married a woman who is emotionally stable? Why did I have to end up with such an insecure kvetch who is frightened by a few stupid guests who have their own set of psychological problems?
Judith's struggle with insecurity is painful, and, truthfully speaking, it makes my life harder. Now, what can I do to help her and myself? Perhaps I can help her get to the bottom of her fears? Maybe I can get her somebody good to speak to? Maybe I should compliment her more often on her achievements? Maybe she is just extra irritable now because she lost her job, and things might get better soon.
Here again, David and Timmy both observed an identical flaw. None of them denied the reality of the condition, yet their emotional responses differed drastically. While David became obsessed with his wife's weaknesses, shortcomings and failures, Timmy focused on how her issues affected him and what he could do to remedy the situation. Why the difference?
David, just like his wife, also suffers from insecurity. He, too, is trying to impress his guests and is fearful of how they will view him. It is just that his way of dealing with his insecurity is by inviting guests, rather than by avoiding them. Both he and his wife are incapable of dealing with visitors in a natural, healthy fashion. He responds in one way; she in another. Both are uncomfortable with themselves.
So when David encounters Judith's fear it brings to the fore his own awkwardness with guests. Instead of confronting his own fears, he resorts to "wife bashing" in order to deflect his own shortcomings. What David is really upset about is not Judith's insecurity, but his own.
Timmy, on the other hand, is confident with himself, so his wife's fears do not consume him. When he observes his wife's insecurity, he does not become entangled in her emotional web and needs not resort to mentally writing a critical biography of her. Her struggles are not his, so he instinctively focuses on how to help resolve the situation.
The same is true concerning Eric and Billy. Eric is so obsessed with telling and retelling himself and others how low Sam is because something in Sam reminded him of himself. His hate toward Sam is a form of hate toward a part of himself that he has never confronted and resolved.
Billy, on the other hand, never lies and never cheats, and he is completely secure and content with his honest lifestyle. He loves it and cherishes it. So when he encounters Sam's misdeeds, he focuses on what he can and ought to do about it. He feels no need to tell himself over and over again how bad Sam is. Why would he be emotionally obsessed with describing another person's nature? Why would another person's negative profile occupy his own mind unless it was lodging there all along?
This, more or less, is what the Baal Shem Tov meant when he stated that your fellow human being is your mirror. If your own face is clean, the image you perceive will also be flawless. But should you look at your fellow human being and see a blemish, it is your own imperfection that you are encountering; you are being shown what you must correct within yourself.
In other words, if you observe a blemish in another human being and find yourself caught up in that person's problems rather than in your own appropriate response to them, you might be struggling with a similar blemish. It is time to take a good look in the mirror and confront your own issues.
However, if you encounter a negative quality or negative behavior in another person, and you do not "see" his negativity per se and don't find yourself engrossed in defining how horrible and evil he is, but rather, you see in his negativity a call to take appropriate action to stop the behavior or to protect yourself and others from it, then you are pure. That person's problem is not your problem.
How to Rebuke?
This, incidentally, is the reason for the redundant terms in the above mentioned biblical mitzvah: "You shall reprove and admonish your fellow man." Why the redundant terms "reprove and admonish"?
The Chassidic masters explain it thus: Before you admonish your fellow human being, you must first reprove yourself. You must first make sure that you are not rebuking him or her because you yourself suffer from a similar flaw. If you are admonishing them as a way of repressing or deflecting from your own shortcomings, the rebuke will usually be counter-productive. They will sense that you are not trying to help them but attempting to protect yourself.
Only after you reprove yourself, dealing with your own similar flaws, should you proceed to speak to your fellow human beings and help them confront their own shortcomings.
Pointing the Finger
Now we can understand the dramatic difference between Noah's son Ham, and the other two sons, Shem and Japheth. Their respective actions stemmed from differing emotional responses. And it this difference that the Torah is attempting to capture when it states that "Ham saw his father nakedness," while Shem and Japheth "saw not their father's nakedness."
Ham himself struggled with immodest passions and shameful trends. So when he observed his father in a shameful, degenerate condition - he actually "saw" his father's nakedness. He saw his father as drunk and naked. Noah was a mirror for Ham.
Shem and Japheth, on the other hand, were more refined inside. It was not only that they walked backward so as to avoid the physical sight of their nude father. Rather, in their own mental experience, "they saw not their father's nakedness." When they heard from their brother about what had transpired with their father, they did not "see" in the message a description of how lowly their father was. Rather, what they saw in the experience was their own responsibility to maintain the ethos of moral modesty: to go and cover Noah with a cloak.
Shem and Japheth did not get entangled in their father's problem, because they were liberated from it. They focused instead on their duty to their father and to G-d at this painful moment.
So here is the timeless lesson of this Torah episode: When you point a finger at someone else, you must remember that simultaneously you are pointing four fingers at yourself.
(This essay is based on an address delivered by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Shabbas Parshas Noach 5726, Oct. 30, 1965 (8)).
1) Genesis 9:20-23.
2) See Zohar vol. 3 53b. Radak and Gur Aryeh in the opening of Genesis.
3) The Chumash ("Five Books of Moses") contains 79,976 words and 304,805 letters. The Talmud states that Rabbi Akiva would derive "mounds upon mounds of laws from the serif of a letter" in Torah (Menachos 29b).
4) Rashi to Genesis 9:23. See Toras Moshe of the Alshich who addresses the second question as well.
5) Karen Armstrong, In the Beginning, A New Interpretation of Genesis (New York, 1996) p. 8. Unfortunately, the author reduces the Bible to the limitations of her imagination, thus stripping Genesis from the infinite divine depth flowing through its pages. Yet the author makes many great points in her analysis of Genesis tales.
6) Quoted by his great disciple and one of the great Chassidic masters, Rabbi Nachum of Tcheranbil (d. in 1810), in his Chassidic work Maor Einayim Parshas Chukas. Cf. Toldos Yaakov Yosef (by the oldest and greatest student of the Baal Shem Tov, Rabbi Yaakov Yosef of Pulnah), end of Parshas Trumah. See also Sefer Hasichos Summer 5740 (by the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yizchak Schneerson) p. 83.
7) Leviticus 19:17.
8) Published in Likkutei Sichos vol. 10 pp. 24-29.