9:14 This verse introduces the next one which describes the significance of the rainbow. Thus, when the earth is beclouded and a rainbow is seen, God will remember…
9:15 “I will remember my covenant..” – Hoffmann notes that the implication of the verse is that without the reminder of the rainbow, God would not remember the covenant, an obviously impossible concept. The same difficulty exists in connection with the commandment to place the blood of the Paschal offering around the doorway in order to demonstrate that Jews lived in the house and thereby prevent the first-born from dying (Exodus 12:7,13); as if God had no other way of knowing where Jews lived. Hoffmann contends that the purpose of the signs was to make clear to man that a Merciful God was concerned with his fate and that the good deeds of man were valued by God and could influence the fate of mankind. Therefore, the signs of God’s mercy had to be such as were plainly apparent to people.
The Torah expresses ‘remembering’ in human terms, because there is no forgetfulness before His glorious throne (Radak).
9:16 “..between God and every living being..” – Noting that since God is the Speaker the verse should have said ‘between Me’. Rashid and Radak explain that Elohim represents His Attribute of Justice, and as the Midrash explains, the meaning of the verse is: when strict justice will demand that man be destroyed for his sins, I will see the sign and save you.
(Render, therefore… I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between My stick Attribute of Justice and every living being…)
9:17 ‘And God said to Noah..” – God, as Elohim, is used throughout the narrative of the rainbow, because this Name describes Him as the One Who possesses absolute power and accordingly that is the name used throughout the original narrative of Creation. He is referred to by this designation in the case in the Flood as if to proclaim: He Who created the world from nothing is the same One Who destroyed the world in a Deluge, and Who now has promised to heal the world (Abarbanel).
“This is the sign of the covenant..” – God actually showed Noah a rainbow and said to him: This is the sign of which I spoke (Rashi). This is why the verse is repeated from verse 12. There, it is a general statement, here the verse tells us that God actually showed Noah the sign (Mizrachi).
9:18-27 The intoxication and shame of Noah. The Torah records a shameful event through which Noah was humiliated and which resulted in the blessings and curse that influence the trend of history to this very day. It demonstrates that even the greatest people can become degraded if they lose control of themselves, and it shows, through the different reactions of his sons and grandson, that crisis brings out the true character of people. Thus, it is a powerful lesson in history and morality.
9:18 “..Shem, Ham, and Japheth..” – As the Midrash notes, Japheth was the eldest. Shem is mentioned first because he was worthy and perfect with his Creator (Tanchuma).
Hirsch notes that although the three sons of Noah represented totally different types of character and striving, all were worth of salvation. The three are named here to demonstrate that all families of man are equal as creatures of God and refugees from the Flood. All are responsible to become pure human beings.
“Ham being the father of Canaan.” He being the source of the degradation (Midrash).
The Torah makes this preliminary announcement of Ham’s genealogy in order that the reader will be able to understand how, in this episode which deals with Noah’s intoxication, Canaan comes to be cursed through Ham’s misdeed (Rashi).
Ibn Ezra comments that they are both mentioned because they were both evil. The episode was recorded to show that the descendants of the Canaanites, male and female, were already accursed since the days of Noah, and for this reason Abraham later cautioned against intermarriage with the Canaanites, as did Rebecca.
Malbim cites the Midrash that Ham was the only one of Noah’s sons to cohabit in the ark. He comments, accordingly, that this verse alludes to Ham’s transgression by saying that, upon leaving the ark, Ham was already the father of Canaan, because Canaan was born of this union in the ark.
9:19 Sforno explains that although a wicked one was among them, nevertheless, since they were the sons of Noah, God blessed them that they ‘be fruitful and multiply’. The Torah stresses in this phrase the phenomenon that one father so righteous and perfect produced three such radically different sons.
“..and from these the whole world was spread out.” – This implies that they dispersed and divided the world among themselves. It is well known that the ancients divided three continents: Asia was taken by Shem; Africa by Ham; and Europe by Japheth (Abarbanel).
9:20 “..the man of the earth..” – The word implies mastery; Noah was the master because the earth had been saved thanks to him (Rashi). Alternatively, Noah is associated with the earth because he was skilled at working it (Ibn Ezra), or because he devoted himself to cultivating the earth, rather than to building cities (Ramban).
“..debased himself..” – The translation of ‘debased’ follows Rashi who relates the verb to profaned or desecrated: ‘he profaned himself because he should have started his planting with something other than a vineyard’ (Midrash). Ibn Ezra, Ramban, and most commentators interpret the verb from the word ‘beginning’ and render that Noah, the man of the earth, was the first to plant a vineyard. His predecessors planted single vines, but he was the first to plant many rows of vines in an orderly fashion, comprising a vineyard.
Targum Yonasan writes: ‘..and he found a vine which the river had brought from the Garden of Eden and he planted it in a vineyard, and it flourished in a day, its grapes ripened and he pressed them out.’
9:21 “”He drank of the wine..” – Rav Chiyah said: He planted it, drank thereof, and was humiliated all in one and the same day.
“..and he uncovered himself..” – He was uncovered, not by himself, but by someone else whom the Torah does not identify. From the curse uttered later, it would seem that Canaan did it (B’chor Shor; Ragbag).
According to Tur, however, Noah was uncovered by Ham who told his brothers.
Hirsch perceives that Noah had not drunk the wine in the innermost part of his tent, but when he felt that the wine was going to his head, he took refuge in the innermost part of the tent where he hoped nobody would see him.
9:22 “Ham, the father of Canaan, saw..” – In the plain meaning of the verse, Noah’s intoxication caused him to become uncovered, and Ham gazed at him disrespectfully. According to Hirsch, the term may mean not nakedness but shame; Ham enjoyed the sight of his father’s dishevelment and drunkenness.
Canaan is associated with the event because he had a part in disgracing Noah. Some of the Sages say that he was the one who saw Noah and ran to tell his father (Rashi). According to Sforno, Ham gazed at – but did not protest – the indignity that Canaan had perpetrated upon Noah. Whatever Canaan did to precipitate or aggravate the situation, Ham’s conduct was disgraceful, for he entered the tent and leered at Noah’s debasement, and then, instead of averting his gaze and covering him, as his brothers did, he went to tell his brothers in a manner of ridicule.
Shem and Japheth waited outside respectfully, but Ham who, as a father, should have best appreciated the dignity due a parent, went in to see the shame of his father and then went to his brothers gleefully telling what he had seen (Hirsch).
“..his father’s nakedness..” Hirsch suggests that the term nakedness sometimes means not literal nakedness, but the degraded condition of drunkenness as in Habakuk 2:15. Thus it is possible that Noah was not naked but that Ham enjoyed his father’s compromised condition.
“..he told his two brothers outside.” – Ramban explains that Ham’s sin was that he should have modestly covered his father’s nakedness and concealed his shame by telling no one. Instead, he broadcast the matter to his two brothers in public in order to ridicule Noah.
9:23 “And Shem and Japheth took a garment,” – The verb ‘took’ is in singular because Shem alone took the initiative in performing this meritorious deed, then Japheth came and joined him. Therefore, the descendants of Shem (the Jews) were rewarded with the precept of fringed garments (Numbers 15:38); those of Japheth were rewarded with burial in Eretz Yisrael as it is written (Ezekiel 39:11): And it shall come to pass in that day that I will give unto Gog (a descendant of Japheth) a place fit for burial in Israel; and those of Ham, who degraded his father, were eventually ‘led away by the King of Assyria .. naked and barefoot’ (Isaiah 20:4) (Midrash; Rashi).
“..laid it upon both their shoulders,” – They laid it on their shoulders to make it easy, when walking backward and approaching close to their father, to let the garment slip off their shoulders and cover their father without having to gaze upon him at all.
“..their faces were turned away,..” – For not only did their eyes not glance at their father’s shame, even their faces were turned away, and they did not see their father’s nakedness (Alschich).
9:24 “Noah awoke from his wine..” – Not only did he wake up from his sleep but even ”from his wine” – his mind was completely lucid and therefore the prophetic spirit for which he was worthy returned to him and through it he knew what had transpired (Ha’amek Davar).
“..his small son..” – Rashi – following the Midrash which apparently agrees with Sanhedrin 69b that Japheth was the eldest, Ham was the second, and Shem was the youngest – explains that ‘small’ in this verse refers to Ham, who although not the youngest, is called ‘small’ in the sense of ‘the unfit and the despised’, as the word is used in Jeremiah 49:15.
9:25-27 Hirsch calls these verses the most far-reaching prophecy ever uttered. In it God allowed Noah to encapsulate all of human history.
9:25 “Cursed is Canaan;..” – Ham sinned and Canaan is cursed! Rav Yehudah explains that God had already blessed Noah and his sons, and there cannot be a curse where a blessing had been given. Therefore Noah cursed his grandson, who, as noted above, was deeply involved in the humiliating incident. According to Rav Nechemiah, the curse is attached to Canaan because he originally saw Noah and informed the others (Midrash).
Radak explains that Noah cursed Canaan because he prophetically foresaw that Canaan’s descendants would be perpetually wicked. The curse was indeed fulfilled for we see that the patriarchs avoided intermarrying with the accursed Canaanites.
Noteworthy, also, is that it does not say ‘cursed shall be Canaan’, but ‘cursed is Canaan’ which signifies he was already accursed from before this time.
“..a slave of slaves..” – The phrase is meant literally, that Canaanites would be enslaved even by people who themselves are dominated by others; or it is a figure of speech, meaning that they would be “the lowliest of slaves” (Ralbag).
Indisputably, many descendants of Shem and Japheth, too, have been sold into slavery, while not every Canaanite is or was a slave. The curse is that from birth the Canaanites will be steeped in the culture of slavery and not seriously desire freedom. The descendants of Shem and Japheth, however, will have a nobler spirit; they will always crave freedom, even if they are enslaved (Ha’ Davar).
The curse was that the raw, uncontrolled sensuality displayed by Canaan could never be permitted to rule. The person with self-control, on the other hand, will not allow himself to be enslaved (Hirsch).
“..shall he be to his brothers.” – According to Ramban, ‘his brothers’ might also refer to his father’s brothers, Japheth and Shem, for one’s father’s brothers are called brothers’ as in Genesis 14:14 where Lot (a nephew) is referred to as Abraham’s brother. It may also be that to his brothers means that he will be enslaved to the whole world; whoever will find him will enslave him.
9:26 “Blessed is Hashem, the God of Shem..” – Noah did not bless Shem directly, but his blessing indicated the nature and striving of Shem. The standard-bearers of Shem would be Israel, for whom the primary goal of life is to serve God and increase His glory in the world. Consequently, when God is blessed, they, too, are exalted.
Though Israel is Hashem’s most devoted servant, He is the universal God; not only Shem’s. He is called the God of Shem in the sense that He is called the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, in that He is especially revealed in their history and because they are the ones who recognized and proclaimed His greatness (Hirsch).
Noah first blessed the God of Shem, thereby letting it be known that Shem will be a servant of Hashem while Canaan will be subject to the descendants of Shem who were many.
9:27 This verse charts the relationship between the two critical factors of human intellect and spirituality. Japheth was blessed with beauty and sensitivity; Shem was blessed with holiness and the Divine Presence. Of the many nations descending from both, the blessing of Japheth took root in ancient Greece and the culture it spawned, while the blessing of Shem rested on Israel and its immersion in Torah and mitzvos (the 613 commandments). Noah’s blessing states that Japheth’s gift is important and beautiful, but only if it is placed at the service of the spiritual truths represented by Shem; otherwise it can be not only dissipated but harmful.
“..but he will dwell in the tents of Shem;” – As the Talmud (Yoma 10a) explains: Although God extended Japheth, inasmuch as his descendant Cyrus built the Second Temple, yet the Shechinah did not dwell in it – he rests only in the tents of Shem, for the Shechinah dwelt only in the First Temple which was built by Solomon, a descendant of Shem (Rashi; Midrash).
Ramban explains it this way: ‘Noah then blessed Japheth with an extension of his territories. He blessed Shem that God cause His Shechinah to dwell in his tents, and finally said that Canaan be a servant to them – the two of them.
9:28-29 Noah was born in the year 1056 from Creation, the Flood occurred in 1656, and he died in 2006, ten years after the Dispersion (Chapter 11). Abraham was born in 1948; thus he knew Noah and was 58 years old when Noah died. It is fascinating that from Adam to Abraham, there was a word-of-mouth tradition spanning only four people: Adam, Lamech, Noah, and Abraham. Similarly, Moses, through whom the Torah was given, saw Kehath who saw Jacob, who saw Abraham. Accordingly, there were not more than seven people who carried the tradition firsthand from Adam to the generation that received the Torah (Abarbanel).