The Pain of Public-Shaming
And set out on the journey
Find a ship to take us on the way
And we’ll sail out on the water
Yes we’ll feel the seas roll
There is a lesser known epilogue to the drama of Noah and the Ark that appears in this week’s Torah reading. While on the one hand we regard Noah as a hero, being the only one worthy of being saved, there is a very ignoble ending to the story. It happens as a post-script to the long journey of surviving on the Ark whilst the world around him was being destroyed. The Torah relates the following once Noah, his wife, three sons – Shem, Cham and Yafet – and their wives, emerge onto dry land for the first time in many months. (Chapter 9:20ff)
And Noah, who was a man of the earth, began anew and planted a vineyard. When he drank some of its wine he became drunk and was exposed within his tent. Cham, the father of Canaan, saw his father naked and told his two brothers who were outside. But Shem and Yafet took a cloth, placed it on both of their shoulders and, walking backwards, they covered their father’s naked body. Their faces were turned the other way, so that they did not see their father naked.
The Torah then narrates that when Noah awoke from his drunken stupor and realized what had happened he cursed Cham via his child, Canaan and blessed his other sons for their discreet behavior.
The story is a disturbing one on all fronts. One issue is why would Noah have such a harsh reaction to his son, Cham? Should one curse a child who accidently sees his parent in a compromised situation? And let’s face it, Noah on some level did bring this upon himself, allowing himself to get drunk to the point of being in such a hazy state of lack of self-awareness.
I believe the key to understanding this episode lies in the location and place of those involved. The Torah goes out of its way to tell us that he “was exposed within his tent.” Noah was in his own personal space. Yes he was naked and maybe even unaware of his appearance, but he was within the privacy of his tent. If he wants to be naked there, from too much drink or otherwise, it’s his business.
The problem arises when Cham happens upon him and sees him in this state. His response shows a lack of respect for his father and is quite problematic. Why go and tell the brothers? What good can come from that? This ought to have been a “whoops” moment where Cham quickly turns away, tiptoes out of there and does not tell a soul. Not even his dad. Instead he blabs to his siblings.
Let’s keep in mind that the Torah makes a point of telling us that Shem and Yafet were outside and completely unaware of the situation. They would never had known anything had Cham not brought it up. The whole sorry episode could have been quickly and quietly forgotten as Cham’s little secret that he carries and keeps, with none the wiser.
But instead he deeply shames his father by publicizing the event and it is this profound disgrace and humiliation that prompts Noah to curse him.
There is a crucial lesson here that applies perhaps to our generation moreso than any other in all of history. Let’s face it, everybody has their Noah drunk moments. We all do stupid stuff at some point or another in our lives. But the key is that if and when we happen upon someone in such a situation we need to think deeply before we share it. Should it be publicized? Should it be posted on Facebook or some other social media platform for all to see? For what? To shame the person? To humiliate them? To alter their lives drastically forever?
How often do we read of someone’s life being totally upended for a stupid tweet or post on social media? One slip up in our cancel culture and your life can change forever. As Rabbi Sacks once wrote, “It is one thing to be shamed by the community of which you are a part, quite another by a global network of strangers who know nothing about you or the context in which your act took place. That is more like a lynch mob than the pursuit of justice.”
This is not to say we should ignore those occasions when someone’s bad behavior is a threat to society or others and an effective way to get them to stop or protect others is by public humiliation. But this is not what is happening with Noah. His flaw is not necessarily hurting anyone but himself, at least in this instance. Yes, his family might at some point wish to address his drinking problem in the future, but not now at the expense of the man’s dignity.
Most of the public shaming we witness in our society and in our day and age is gratuitous. There is nothing to be gained other than the perverted glee some feel at the downfall of others. Even the infamous racist “Karen”, (I hate using that term, being married to someone named Karen) who called the police on the African American bird watcher in Central Park, was tar and feathered beyond what was necessary. The victim himself spoke out in her defense and said he is not cooperating with the Manhattan DA’s investigation of the matter, stating that, “Bringing her more misery just seems like piling on.”
Judaism takes a very harsh view of embarrassing someone. The Talmud likens it to killing another and we can see why it says that in light of how some lives have been destroyed by public shaming. It points out that one loses a good chunk of their eternal reward for disgracing someone in a public setting. The pain of embarrassment is so acute that Jewish tradition describes it as the true experience of Hell
Just because you are witness to another’s folly does not mean you should share it with others. We need to follow the script of Hillel who famously taught, “Whatever is unpleasant to you, do not do to others.” You would not wish to be treated in such a fashion, so do not treat another that way.
Noah’s son was the first to be guilty of public shaming and all it did was create rift and curse between father and son. The only remedy is to keep certain private matters just that – private, and thereby reap the Peace, Unity and Blessing that result.
If you travel blindly, if you fall
The truth is there to set you free