Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Canaan, Son of Cham

Parshat Noach

By Rabbi Avi Billet

In 7:7, Noach and his wife, along with his three sons and their wives, entered the ark. The Ba’al Haturim points out in 2:21 that the word “vayisgor” — and he closed — appears only twice in the Torah. We read the first one last week when G-d closed flesh around Chava. The second time appears in 7:16, when G-d closes the ark, protecting it from the rainwaters.

From these comparisons he infers the source of the midrash that marital relations were forbidden on the ark, for both the human couples and animal couples.

When it is time to leave the ark, in 9:18, we see Noach’s sons listed in this order: Shem, Cham, and Yefet. Then we are told, “and Cham is the father of Canaan.”

Why would Canaan be mentioned in this context? Was he born on the ark? Or was he not yet born? In either case, he isn’t one of the sons of Noach!

There are differences of opinion as to whether Canaan was born when this declaration is made, so we can go either way. But the Medrash Tanchuma (Noach, 12) says that three beings violated the rule of celibacy in the ark: Cham, the dog and the raven. In Cham’s case, his son Canaan was the result (see Chizkuni 9:18).

In the next few verses, Cham is again referred to as “Cham the father of Canaan,” when he witnesses his father in a drunken stupor (9:22), and Canaan is the one who is cursed in 9:25 over the way his father mocked Noach instead of covering his nakedness.

Seems a little unfair to Canaan.

Rashi says Canaan is mentioned in these capacities since he will be cursed on account of his dad, we need to know where he comes from. That still seems a little unfair to Canaan.

The Shakh (Siftei Cohen) suggests that Cham was not supposed to leave the ark alive because of the rule he had violated: the only reason he came off the boat was so that Canaan could be born. It was Canaan’s destiny to ultimately be beholden, as a servant, to his uncles, on the one hand, and on the other hand to build up the land of Canaan — also known as the Land of Israel — so the Children of Israel could one day inherit it (ala Deuteronomy 6:10-11).

According to this approach, Cham is constantly described as Canaan’s father because only in the merit of his unborn son (Canaan) did he disembark from the ark on his own two feet.

If we follow the interpretation of Ramban, however, we find that the punishment meted out to Canaan is more a punishment to his father than anyone else. While the parallel is not exact, many ask why a “mamzer” is labeled such and maintains his status (“may not enter the community of G-d”) when he did nothing — his biological parents are to blame as they conceived him through an adulterous affair.

Most answers are not satisfactory, but the most obvious one is that the ultimate punishment to those who have sinned is to have their children live as a constant reminder of their wrong deeds.

In our world, the misdeeds of those who have been guilty of any kind of crime are not quickly forgotten. With the help of the internet and blogs we have become an extremely judgmental and unforgiving generation. Sometimes we judge the children of these people based on the deeds of their parents, even though they had nothing to do with their parents’ actions and often reject every mistake their parents made. In some cases, the children of the infamous will change their last names to avoid such unfortunate and unwarranted retribution.

Canaan is not to be blamed for the misdeeds of his father. But his father has an obligation to live his life in such a manner that Canaan can never be held responsible by anyone for his father’s wrongdoings.

A friend of mine once put it to me this way: “I live my life in such a way that I will never have to explain to my daughter why my name is splashed across the front page of the newspaper.”

Loving parents would never want their children to have repercussions from their own misdeeds. It requires following the rules all the time, and an occasional long, hard look in the mirror.

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