“And Noach began to be a master of the soil, and he planted a vineyard. And he drank of the wine and became drunk, and he uncovered himself within his tent” (Genesis 9:20-21).
Noach is humanity’s shared ancestor. The Torah calls him righteous in his time and states that he walked with God. He is commanded to build an ark to house his lineage and (most of) the world’s animals, in order to restart the world after it is destroyed in a flood.
There has been much commentary on Noach’s life. Was he really great, or just great for his time? Did he try to save others, or was he aloof and only doing exactly – but not more than – what was commanded of him?
The end of his life raises many concerns. When Noach was commanded to leave the ark, one of his first acts was to plant a vineyard and get drunk. Noach has three sons: Shem, Ham and Yaphet (Japheth). The Torah states that in Noach’s stupor, Ham stared at his father’s nakedness and shared the news with his brothers – an action that leads him to be cursed. Shem and Yaphet, however, entered into their father’s tent backward in order to cover him and maintain his dignity.
Rabbi Eliyahu Milikovsky-Samanov’s book Devar Eliyahu provides a deeper reading into the actions of Shem and Yaphet. For Rabbi Milikovsky-Samanov, walking backward portrays the sons’ ability to look past the current stumblings of their father, and see all of his prior positive actions. They were able to cover his current nakedness with his earlier righteousness.
As contemporaries, it is worth remembering that the Torah cursed Ham, the talebearer, the one who rejoiced in his father’s downfall. In an age when society revels in people’s failure, we must remember the complexity of the human experience and weigh other people’s contributions before rewriting their biographies with just their missteps.