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Noah and Nakedness

Updated: Nov 28, 2023

We all know the story of this week’s Torah portion, how Noah is identified as the only righteous person in his generation, and delegated to build an ark, bring the animals in two by two and save humanity post-flood. Noah dutifully complies and the ark sails away with his family, including his 3 named sons. It’s the end of the story, the postscript, if you will, that I’d like to focus on. Ham, the Torah tells us, observed that his father, Noah, was lying naked inside his tent. He ran outside to tell his brothers. Shem and Yapheth took a cloth, placed it against both their backs, and, walking backward, covered their father’s nakedness; their faces were turned the other way so that they did not see their father’s nakedness. When Noah wakes up from his sleep- according to the Torah he was intoxicated from having consumed the produce of the vineyard he had planted- he curses Ham for sharing this information about his body. Ham is cursed for seeing his father naked- should Ham have felt embarrassed? Wouldn’t he have seen his father naked somewhere in their lives? Did he need to share this information with his brothers? Why are we so shy about our bodies? Should we feel embarrassed about the way we look? It seems that our relationship to our body images has not changed since the incident of Noah and his sons. It’s complicated, and it’s made exponentially worse by the sense of body shaming that pervades our culture. A recent survey reported that 58% of high school boys and 63% of high school girls medically classified as overweight experienced daily bullying about the size or shape of their bodies. Negative comments can lead to unhealthy behaviors- self injury, eating disorders, depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem, to name a few. Think for a minute about how much praise women enjoy after giving birth for getting back to their pre-baby weight, rather than commenting on what great moms they are. During Sukkot I took a photo of someone with a lulav and etrog and I wanted to show it to her kids and grandkids. She called to implore me not to show it anyone; she felt embarrassed because she was so fat. Shame about our bodies is deeply embedded in us, exacerbated by the constant flow of images of so-called perfection that pervade the media. Tablet Magazine described a Jewish camp that instituted a “no body talk” rule that discourages campers from mentioning physical appearances. That includes negative comments (“Ugh, my hands are so big”) and positive ones (“You’re having such a good hair day!”). “It makes a big difference when, instead of their appearances, people focus on the value of their interests and what they’re passionate about,” said Co-Director Vivian Lehrer Stadlin. As a Jewish community, we need to look at how much emphasis we place on food, and how our spaces are designed to accommodate a variety of body types. The Torah points to shame about our bodies not only in this story of Noah and his sons. We saw it in the very first Torah reading, in which Adam and Eve eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and “then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they perceived that they were naked; and they sewed together fig leaves and made themselves loincloths” (Genesis 3:7). They felt an immediate need to cover themselves. The key to understanding how we relate to our bodies is to recognize that shame is the opposite of respect. We respect the body as “the image of God.” In Jewish tradition we have actual blessings for the way our bodies work- from the ability to walk to thanks for successful elimination of waste. Healthy sexual expression is celebrated. We use our bodies to perform so many mitzvot. Why would we denigrate our appearance or the appearance of others? There is even a blessing to celebrate the beauty of diversity when we see someone who appears a bit different. Jewish law specifically prohibits “oppression done by means of words” (o’na’ah b’d’varim). We may not call people derogatory nicknames or embarrass them by reminding them of mistakes they made in the past. We can now better understand the story of how Noah’s sons reacted to his nakedness in this week’s parsha. Granted, Noah got drunk and disrespected himself in doing so. We might excuse him; perhaps he was unaware of the impact alcohol would have, this being the first vineyard ever planted. This does not excuse his son Ham, however, from adding to Noah’s embarrassment by looking at him naked and then describing that state to his brothers As more and more of us deal with elderly parents, many of whom lose mental capacity through Alzheimer’s and other diseases, we need to remember the lesson embedded in this story as we cover our parents literally and cover for our parents when they say things that are hurtful or make no sense. It is a mitzvah to honor our parents- it says so right there in the ten commandments. Young people are more frequently body shamed about weight, attractiveness, attire, makeup or the lack thereof, etc. But older folks don’t escape, either. Lack of mobility, eyesight, hearing, hair loss and wrinkles are all fodder for teasing and humiliation. In contemporary America, feeling GOOD about one’s body feels like the exception, not the norm. As we read the story of Noah and recall how his sons respond to his nakedness, may we be reminded of the mitzvah of treating all of humanity with tenderness and sensitivity. May we find ways to strengthen our love of and comfort with our own bodies, despite our culture’s emphasis on one size fits all. May we all act in ways that diminish people’s shame and advance their honor as creatures created in the image of God.

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