July 14, 2024
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At the end of Parshat Noach, following the story of the flood, Noach left the ark and planted a vineyard, with disastrous results:

“And he drank of the wine and became drunk, and he uncovered himself within his tent” (Bereishit 9:21).

Cham, the father of Kena’an, saw his father’s nakedness and told his two brothers who were outside. Shem and Yafet went into their father ‘s tent walking backward and they covered their father’s nakedness. Chazal pick up on the fact that the pasuk says,

“And Shem and Yafet took the garment, and they placed [it] on both of their shoulders, and they walked backward, and they covered their father’s nakedness” (Bereishit 9:23).

If Shem and Yafet took the garment, why is “and he took” written in the singular instead of in the plural “and they took”? Rashi quotes Chazal saying that this teaches us that Shem exerted himself to fulfill the commandment more than Yafet did. Shem was rewarded for this and his children, the Jewish people, merited the mitzvah of the tallit with tzitzit, and Yafet merited the lesser blessing of burial.

What does Rashi mean by saying that Shem fulfilled the mitzvah in a greater way than Yafet? It seems that Shem was the instigator. Yafet complied with Shem but it was Shem who initiated the idea. The question is what’s the root of this difference? Rav Soloveitchik presented the following idea. There’s a difference between ethics versus etiquette, the difference being what should be done versus what is done by many. Ethics is what I should do, it’s not what anyone else tells me to do or what is socially acceptable. It’s what is right because I know it’s what Hakadosh Baruch Hu wants me to do. Etiquette is based on the surroundings, on social norms and what is acceptable in the eyes of others. Shem acted based on ethics, on what he knew was right. He knew what he had to do, that he had to answer to a Higher Authority. Etiquette, says Rav Soloveitchik, is what Yafet did. At this time he followed Shem because he felt that Shem’s action was what was socially acceptable at the time. “And he took”—Shem was the one who took the real ethical initiative here.

We see this in the lives of the great throughout our history.

In Parashat Shemot, Moshe Rabbeinu goes out of the palace. On the first day he sees an Egyptian beating a Jew. What does he do? He takes the law into his own hands and defends the Jew. The next day he sees two Jews fighting and intervenes once again. On the third day he goes to Midian and involves himself in a conflict between non-Jews—the shepherds and Yitro’s daughters. In escaping to Midian, he’s trying to keep a low profile but he can’t stop himself. He can’t just stand idly by, because Moshe Rabbeinu doesn’t act based on etiquette. He acts based on ethics because that’s the essence of who Moshe Rabbeinu was.

The Tur at the beginning of the halachot of Or HaChaim quotes the mishna in Pirkei Avot: “Yehuda ben Taima said, be bold as a leopard, light as an eagle, swift as a deer, and strong as a lion to do the will of your Father in Heaven.” Why is this so prominent? Why does the Tur start off all of halacha with this statement? The Tur himself explains that this is a great lesson in the service of God. Often a person wants to do the right thing but he’s nervous about what other people will say, he’s concerned with how he will be perceived. The Tur starts off all of halacha by saying: “A person might not always do the right thing because of his fear of being made fun of.”

One has to do the right thing, based on ethics and not on etiquette, because Hakadosh Baruch Hu wants us to do it. Let us all follow the paths of Shem and of Moshe Rabbeinu that the Tur describes to us, and bring nachat to Hakadosh Baruch Hu.


Rabbi Shalom Rosner is a rebbe at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh and rabbi of the Nofei HaShemesh community. He is a member of the Mizrachi Speakers Bureau ( www.mizrachi.org/speakers ).

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