The Torah in Parashat Noach tells of God’s promise after the flood that He would never flood the earth again. Introducing this section, the Torah writes that God spoke these words “to Noach and to his sons with him” (9:8) – seemingly implying that God spoke to all four men, Noach and his three sons. The Ramban, however, explains this to mean that God spoke only to Noach, who was then to relay the information to his three sons. After all, the Ramban notes, one of Noach’s sons – Cham – is known to have been sinful, as indicated in the story told later (9:22) of Noach’s inebriation, during which he removed his clothes. Cham saw his father’s disgrace, and excitedly rushed to tell his brothers, reveling in Noach’s humiliation. The Ramban thus found it conceivable that Cham reached the spiritual level necessary to experience prophecy, and this prompted the Ramban to read the verse to mean that God spoke only to Noach.
Ibn Ezra, after offering this interpretation, briefly adds that some commentators maintained that Noach’s sons were all prophets, just as he was. This approach also appears in the commentary of the Radak. Apparently, proponents of this view were not troubled by the prospect of Cham receiving prophecy before his shameful response to Noach’s inebriation. It should be emphasized that according to the Gemara (Sanhedrin 70a), Cham did not just look and jeer at his father, but committed a heinous act; one view claims Cham raped Noach, and another claimed he castrated him. Nevertheless, according to the approach referenced by Ibn Ezra, the man who perpetrated such a crime was a prophet to whom God spoke not too long before this appalling act.
Rav Chaim Elazary, in his Netivei Chayim, notes how according to this view, Cham serves as a striking example of human weakness and inconsistency, how people are capable of quickly deteriorating from piety to contemptible immorality. Prophecy, as the Rambam famously discusses (Hilkhot Yesodei Ha-Torah 7:1), is given only to those who have achieved a special level of personal piety and wisdom. Accordingly, if Cham was a prophet at the time the flood ended, as the view cited by Ibn Ezra suggests, then he must have been exceedingly righteous at that point. And yet, not long thereafter, he committed a heinous criminal act against his righteous father, alerting us to the reality that piety in the present is no guarantee of piety in the future, and that no matter what level we have achieved, we must always work and struggle to maintain our standards – or, preferably, to raise them.
More specifically, Rav Elazary points to the Midrash’s comment cited by Rashi (9:25) that Cham castrated Noach to ensure that Noach would not beget any more children who would diminish from his portion of the inheritance after Noach’s passing. Greed, it seems, is capable of driving a person from towering heights of moral and spiritual greatness to the lowest depths of cruelty and depravity. The lust for money can lead people to betray their principles and values even in the most shocking ways. As the Mishna in Pirkei Avot (4:2) famously exhorts, “Do not trust yourself until the day you die.” As long as we are alive, we are capable of both greatness and evil, regardless of what we’ve done in the past. Just as our past sins and mistakes do not prevent us from achieving spiritual greatness, likewise, our past achievements and current spiritual standing do not guarantee that this is how we will always live, and we must therefore always continue working and exerting effort to achieve to the best of our ability.