Fate of the pedestal
Children of the Bible Series
Jewish Family Identity Forum
By Candace R. Kwiatek, The Dayton Jewish Observer
I recently read the acclaimed biography The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore. Like two photo albums set side by side, it alternately traces the lives of two African-American men with the same name.
Born about the same time in the same Baltimore neighborhood, both Weses were poor, fatherless, and surrounded by crime and drugs. One became a Rhodes scholar, an investment banker, and an author. The other became a convicted and permanently incarcerated murderer.
Unexpectedly, Moore’s memoir mirrored the themes that have been developing in this new series: As humans, we are endowed with free will, we create ourselves through the choices we make and the actions we take, and we are responsible for the consequences.
As we turn to a new photo spread in the album of biblical children, we come across these themes again, but this time through a new lens.
Following the tragedy of Cain and Abel, the next biblical drama featuring children involves the adult sons of Noah: Shem, Ham, and Japheth.
The Bible recounts that once the Flood has receded, Noah plants a vineyard and becomes drunk on wine, uncovering himself within his tent.
Ham sees him uncovered and tells his brothers outside. Shem and Japheth cover Noah, averting their eyes to avoid seeing their father naked. When Noah awakens, he realizes what has happened, blesses Shem and Japheth with goodness, and curses Ham with slavery (Gen. 9:20-27).
While some sources suggest that there was at one time more to the story than this bare bones outline, early commentators focus on the simple plot and its most obvious message: filial respect for a parent.
However it seems odd that such an extreme and disquieting tale — one usually avoided until adulthood for that matter — was crafted simply to teach respect for parents. So what else might be going on?
At the beginning of the story, Noah is singled out as the one righteous man in a world “immersed in jealousy, greed, theft, violence, lying, intolerance, deception and fraud (Rabbi Shraga Simmons, Noah’s Ark, based on Sanhedrin 57a).”
Yet, when God tells Noah that He plans to destroy the entire world except for a select few survivors, the supposedly righteous Noah is complacent.
“When he is finished building, he boards the ark with his family and the designated animals, leaving everyone else to perish,” writes Rabbi Ari Kahn in A Righteous Tzaddik.
As one of the lone survivors of the Flood, how does Noah cope? Kahn continues, “He plants a vineyard and then gets drunk on the wine.”
What about Noah’s sons? Like the two Weses, Shem, Ham, and Japheth grew up in a depraved environment. We know little about them other than that, influenced by their culture and peers, they do not merit the label of “righteous” like their father.
Yet, we can imagine that as youngsters, like most children, they envisioned their dad up on a pedestal, almost a super-hero.
You can hear their voices filled with pride: “My Dad is gooooood!” “My Dad is the smartest man in the world!” “My Dad is building an ark.”
Even as young married men, Noah’s sons probably idolized him. After all, he was their dad.
He saved his family. He even spoke with God. Why shouldn’t he be on a pedestal?
Yet, witnessing the complete annihilation of their society and the enormous destruction wrought by the Flood, Noah’s sons must have started to wonder: How could Dad have been so acquiescent — building the ark, collecting only a few animals, closing the door to anyone but the family?
Couldn’t he have warned the people, saved at least some of them? Did he at least argue with God? It’s not farfetched to imagine that Noah, too, began to question himself after the Flood.
That his growing unease led him to drink. That in the privacy of his own home, he was finally able to admit to himself the shamefulness of his behavior: his passiveness and lack of concern for the fate of others.
And then Ham walked into Noah’s tent, uninvited and unannounced, and saw his father “uncovered” — his failure, his shame, his drunkenness, his naked humanity.
At that point, Ham had a choice: he could knock his father completely off the pedestal because he didn’t live up to the superhero image. Or he could recognize that Noah was human and, despite all his failings, still deserving of honor as his father.
Ham rejected the superhero in private and dishonored the man in public when he chose to broadcast Noah’s broken image to his brothers.
Despite their same background and experience, Shem and Japheth chose instead to put this new image of their father in perspective.
Covering him in private, they honored his dignity as a human being. Averting their eyes from the fallen image of their superhero, they chose to keep him on a pedestal, honoring his role as their father.
Few of us will ever confront such a monumental failure on the part of a parent. Yet, there will come a point in our lives when we realize that our parents aren’t really super-heroes. They aren’t perfect and they aren’t ever going to be or do exactly what we wish.
More than heredity, environment or upbringing, the Noah tale cautions that the choice we make at that moment will have an enduring impact on our character and our ultimate fate.
By choosing to keep them on a hero’s pedestal despite their all-too-obvious human failings, we honor them as our parents. By doing so we honor God. By doing so, we become honorable individuals ourselves.
Family Discussion: When I was growing up, girls were taught: “If you’re looking for a good husband, observe how a man treats his parents.” Connect this adage to the story of Noah’s sons. What quality or character trait is highlighted? Do you agree with the advice? Why or why not? How would you reword it to fit the search for any marriage partner?
Literature to share
Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua: While it doesn’t exactly fit the category of Jewish literature, this memoir is a thought-provoking read because it pushes the topic of child rearing styles and goals into the spotlight. One of Chua’s most consistent messages — one that resonated with me — is that parenting should be the result of conscious decision making. But how does menschlichkeit (being a good person) enter into your deliberations? Read and discuss.
The Kids’ Fun Book of Jewish Time by Emily Sper: This colorful, boldly graphic, interactive book follows the yearly cycle of the Jewish calendar, explaining the phases of the moon, the months and seasons, and Shabbat (but no holidays) in a way that even a young child can understand. Adding to the interest is the corresponding Hebrew vocabulary (and transliteration). Highly recommended!