We read in Parashat Noach the story of Noach’s intoxication after he planted a vineyard and produced wine. In his drunken stupor, Noach undressed himself inside his tent, where he was seen by his son, Cham. The Torah tells that Cham shared the news of his father’s disgrace with his older brothers, Sheim and Yefet, who responded by respectfully covering Noach with a garment to protect him from further embarrassment. Noach later learned of what happened, and proceeded to pronounce a curse on Cham and to bless his other sons.
Rashi, commenting on this episode (9:22), cites two views mentioned by the Gemara, in Masekhet Sanhedrin (70a), regarding Cham’s misconduct. Whereas the Torah says simply that Cham saw his father in his disgraced state, these two Sages claimed that he committed a far greater offense: according to one view, Cham castrated Noach, and the other says that he raped him.
It could be suggested that these readings of the text reflect the two mistakes that we tend to make upon seeing people disgraced, when we see them fail and suffer humiliation. The first mistake is to “castrate” them in our minds, in the sense of viewing them as fruitless and irredeemably consigned to failure. When we learn of somebody’s grave mistake or wrongdoing, we might be naturally inclined to deny their future potential, and to believe that they are incapable of ever achieving or producing. Their failures or misdeeds, we might think, make them helplessly and hopelessly unsuccessful. This, perhaps, is the allegorical meaning of Chazal’s description of Cham “castrating” his father – that he viewed this unfortunate incident as the end of Noach’s life of productivity, feeling that Noach could never again achieve anything of significance after humiliating himself in this way.
The other mistaken response to other people’s shame is to abuse it for our own selfish purposes, to take advantage of their blunders to boost our own ego and sense of self-righteousness. When we see somebody humiliated, we might seek to draw satisfaction from his or her disgrace, feeling superior and successful in contrast to that person’s failure. Just as a rapist abuses the victim’s state of weakness and vulnerability for his own pleasure, we are sometimes tempted to abuse a disgraced person’s shame for our own gratification, priding ourselves over our perceived position of superiority.
The correct response to other people’s humiliation, of course, is that of Sheim and Yefet, who immediately proceeded to “cover their father’s nakedness” – to do what they could to protect Noach’s honor. Rather than view Noach as helplessly condemned to failure and disgrace, or to feed their own egos off his shame, they chose to preserve his dignity. They recognized the importance of maintaining respect for people even after they have failed, even in their state of disgrace. They realized that all people have “nakedness,” embarrassing aspects of their characters and their past, and all people deserve the right to have these aspects kept concealed. We learn from this story the importance of respecting people for their admirable qualities even after their “nakedness” has been exposed, even upon discovering their mistakes and failings, rather than condemning them to eternal shame or utilizing their humiliation to bolster our own feelings of pride.