Torah Study

Noach, Shem, and Ever – Masters of Insulation

Shem was the son of Noach and the progenitor of the Semitic peoples, including the Jewish nation. He appears in parashas Bereishis but features mainly in Noach and Lech Lecha, where he is known as Malkitzedek. His children were Eilam, Ashur, Arpachshad, Lud, Aram, Utz, Chul, Geter, and Meshech. The Divine Presence resided among his descendants in the merit of his protecting his father’s dignity when he was disgraced by his son Cham. Shem founded the famous Yeshivah of Shem, where the Avos learned. He lived 600 years.

Ever was the great-grandson of Shem and led his own yeshivah. He appears in parashas Noach, and Chazal mention his yeshivah in the context of parashas Vayetzei, as Yaakov Avinu studied there before he went to live with Lavan. Ever’s sons were Peleg and Yoktan. He lived 464 years.

At the end of parashas Bereishis, the Torah writes that Noach found favor in the eyes of HaShem. In the beginning of the next parashah, Noach, the Torah tells us of Noach’s offspring. The Midrash notes this juxtaposition, concluding that Noach found favor in the merit of his children. Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky, ztz”l, finds the Midrash difficult to understand. For in all its discussion of Noach’s special treatment by HaShem, the Torah never emphasizes its being due to his children’s greatness. Rather, it would seem that through his own merit, Noach was saved from the flood and chosen to be the progenitor of mankind. Accordingly, why does the Midrash attribute Noach’s special favor to his children?

Rav Kamenetsky answers by quoting another midrash, which discusses Noach’s ability to protect himself and his family from the evil people around him, just as a bottle of perfume that is sealed tight and placed in a cemetery retains its pleasant fragrance despite its unpleasant surroundings. Therefore, says Rav Kamenetsky, when the midrash says Noach was saved in his children’s merit, it means he was saved because he raised them in such a way that they were protected from the negative influences surrounding them.

This idea is further brought out by a homiletical interpretation of the Gemara in Berachos. The Gemara states that even if a person has said krias Shema in shul, he must say it again before going to sleep. The Shema epitomizes the acceptance of the yoke of Heaven (ol Malchus Shamayim). The Gemara thus alludes to the fact that even if a person accepted the yoke of Heaven in shul, with the community, he must do so again at home, without the spiritual support of the community. The Gemara is teaching us that it is insufficient to maintain one’s spiritual level when he is surrounded by like-minded people who can help him. He must be strong enough to hold his own even when he is alone, with no external support. Noach epitomized this exalted level, remaining righteous even without help (and instead with hindrance!) from those around him.

Noach’s son Shem and his great-grandson Ever emulated him in this respect, and taught this lesson to those who studied in their yeshivos. With this understanding, a number of difficulties can be resolved. First, when Yaakov Avinu left Eretz Yisrael to go to Lavan, he spent fourteen years in the Yeshiva of Ever (Shem had already passed away). Yaakov was sixty-three years old when he arrived at the yeshivah, and had spent his whole life learning from his great father, Yitzchak Avinu. Why was this study insufficient to prepare him for Lavan?

The answer is that until now, Yaakov had been surrounded by tzaddikim, but now that he was facing the challenge of living with people like Lavan, he needed to learn other sugyas (topics), those related to dealing with tricksters, liars, and enemies. The Torah of Yitzchak Avinu was not geared toward such nisyonos (tests), because he too was protected from negative influences by his parents. Indeed, when Yishmael threatened to be a bad influence, Sarah threw him out of the house. In contrast, Shem and Ever had grown up surrounded by evil: Shem, in the time of the flood, and Ever, in the time of the Tower of Bavel. Accordingly, the Torah of Shem and Ever addressed the kinds of challenges Yaakov knew he would face during his stay with Lavan.

The teachings of Shem and Ever are also mentioned with regard to the Torah Yaakov taught his son Yosef. Rashi, based on the Midrash, says that one way in which Yaakov seemed to give preferential treatment to Yosef was that “everything he [Yaakov] learned from Shem and Ever, he passed on to him [Yosef].” Why does the Midrash stress the Torah that Yaakov learned from Shem and Ever? What about the Torah he learned from Yitzchak? The answer is that Yaakov subconsciously knew that Yosef was destined to live in exile, away from G-d-fearing people and surrounded by negative influences. Therefore, of all his sons, he taught only Yosef the Torah of Shem and Ever, because he needed it most. The brothers misread Yaakov’s intentions and believed he was teaching Yosef more Torah than them, because only he would continue the line of transmission. However, in truth, Yaakov was only equipping Yosef with the tools he needed to survive his own exile.

Indeed, upon learning that Yosef has indeed survived, Yaakov exclaims, “Rav, od Yosef chai – it is great, Yosef is still alive!” The Midrash elaborates that Yaakov was extolling Yosef’s great strength in withstanding many challenges and tests in Mitzrayim, remaining steadfast in his righteousness. Yosef managed this feat because of the Torah of Shem and Ever that Yaakov taught him in his youth.

We have seen that Noach’s great strength was his ability to protect himself and his family from external influences, and that Shem and Ever passed on his teachings in their yeshivos. The only remaining question is, what does it mean that they taught a different type of Torah? How was it different? There are two areas in which it seems that Shem and Ever taught a different type of Torah: halachah (Jewish law) and hashkafah (Jewish thought).

In terms of halachah, Rav Kamenetsky notes that the Chafetz Chaim, ztz”l, wrote a work of Jewish law geared specifically for Jews serving in non-Jewish armies. Such people obviously faced many unusual and difficult challenges and needed guidance as to when they could apply various leniencies and to what extent. In a similar vein, people nowadays who work in non-Jewish environments or come from secular families face complicated questions that are not necessarily addressed in the standard halachah works. Obviously, such delicate issues must be addressed to a rav who is familiar with these unusual situations.

With regard to hashkafah, different people clearly confront different challenges. A person who finds himself surrounded by proponents of very distinct lifestyles will need to study works of musar and hashkafah that focus on staying strong under such circumstances. He may need constant reinforcement in basics of Jewish thought in order to maintain the correct outlook when those around him pressure him to act differently.

We have seen the importance of the Torah of Shem and Ever to the development of our forefathers, and how it can apply to our lives.


From the book “Beacons of Light”


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