It’s Biblical: This week: Shem

It’s Biblical: This week: Shem

Everything you wanted to know about your favourite Torah characters, and the ones you’ve never heard of...

It’s hard being the child of a superstar; all the more so when your father single-handedly gives humanity a hope, despite its otherwise total obliteration.

For the 120 years prior to the flood, Noah seems to work on his ark in isolation; we only learn of the names of his children as they enter the ark as the rainwaters commence. Noah alone sends out the ravens and dove as they leave the ark; Hashem seals the Rainbow Covenant with Noah.

Noah struggles to adjust to life back on dry land. Tragically, “Noah, man of the earth, degraded himself, and planted a vineyard. He became drunk and uncovered himself inside the tent.”

His son, Ham, “sees the nakedness of his father and told his two brothers”. Based on Noah’s subsequent cursing, our sages convey a tradition that Ham’s ‘seeing’ was a euphemism for either rape or castration.

Noah saved the world; he now was drunk and exposed in a cruel way by his youngest son.

Shem, joined to a lesser extent by his brother Yafet, place a garment over their father, taking care not to see his shame.

We know little about Shem from the text; according to our sages he founded a yeshiva with his grandson Ever; he became a priest, later to be known as Malki-Tzedek, king of Shalem, with whom Abraham forged an alliance.

Yet we are known as Semites – after Shem. His singular act in the Torah – sparing his father from further embarrassment, and saving what was left of his dignity – was enough for Noah to bless him that his brothers should be subservient to him.

In our very exposed age when everything – physically, personal, spiritual –
is revealed, perhaps this trait of Shem is one from which we can all learn.

Rabbi Garry Wayland is the former assistant rabbi at Woodside Park United shul

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