One of the classical principles of scriptural interpretation is that the written Torah is especially efficient — every word is precise and instructive. Any section which appears to be extraneous or redundant signals additional information being smuggled into the text. Based on this premise, the Talmud (Pesachim, 3a) points to an expression in this week’s portion, where instead of the more logical and succinct term “unclean,” the Torah uses an elaborate phrase. The subtle divergence, explains the Talmud, provides us with a lesson about the importance of refined communication, even if it entails being lengthier: “An unrefined word should never pass a person’s lips, for the Torah goes out of its way and uses eight extra letters to avoid an unpleasant word.”
But choosing delicate language to avoid crude speech is not the only consideration when expressing oneself. In other places, the importance of clarity and conciseness is stressed regarding good writing and communication. And sometimes we run into a clash of values: Which is more important, more direct or more refined language?
The commentaries explain a guiding principle regarding when it is preferable to be brief and blunt for the sake of clarity, or to be lengthier yet delicate to avoid speaking crudely. It depends on the context: When it comes to conveying law (practical education or halachic ruling), clarity is primary. But when the Torah conveys anecdotes, refinement takes precedence.
The broader applications of this distinction are, for example, the need in business transactions or medical discussions to be precise — a situation where clarity takes precedence over refined speech. But in conversations, such as when asked about someone’s character, being tactful overrides the need to be more direct, clear and concise.
Repetition signals lessons
Most ethical commentaries, whether in Torah or other works, deal with ways to refine one’s actions or speech, like the lesson above. Later in this week’s Torah portion, we find a more subtle instruction that relates to managing our thoughts.
The passage begins after the story of the flood: “And Noah, the man of the earth, debased himself and planted a vineyard. He drank wine and became drunk, and he uncovered himself within his tent. And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father’s nakedness and told his two brothers outside. Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid it upon both their shoulders, and they walked backward, and covered their father’s nakedness; their faces were turned backward, and they did not see their father’s nakedness” (Genesis 9:20-24).
When examining the precise wording in this passage, there is a seeming redundancy in its last verse (“Their faces were turned backwards, and they did not see their father’s nakedness”). The immediate question is: Once the reader is informed that “their faces were turned backward,” the next phrase — “they did not see their father’s nakedness” — is obvious and unnecessary. If so, this apparent extraneousness is communicating a separate idea about Shem and Japheth’s approach to helping their father.
Even thoughts can be hidden messages
To understand the lesson in this extra phrase, let’s depart to examine two famous teachings. Stemming from the doctrine of divine (personal) providence, the Baal Shem Tov teaches that everything one sees and hears offers a lesson; there is no such thing as a random encounter or meaningless event. This teaching extends even to our own personal reactions and emotions, which can provide significant lessons. Furthermore, there are guidelines about how to interpret the waves of thoughts and feelings that naturally flow inside.
This leads to a second teaching, which discusses how to manage the common occurrence of noticing flaws in another person. The Baal Shem Tov explains that our perception of the world is like a mirror through which we see our own reflection. And if a person sees a deficiency in someone else, it is a sign that he or she must have a similar fault, either outwardly or a more subtle version — otherwise, that thought would never have come to mind. (And the reason God uses such an indirect method to send us this message is that while it is easy to recognize flaws in others, we are naturally more resistant to see flaws in ourselves.)
At first glance, this overarching principle is profound but puzzling. Why can’t one simply notice another’s flaw without necessarily possessing the same character trait? Indeed, there is a notable qualification to the Baal Shem Tov’s teaching: The principle depends on the emotion it provokes. Just as our choice of speech (using precision vs. refinement) depends on the social context we are in, so too whether seeing flaws signifies a cause for self-reflection depends on the context.
If, upon noticing a deficiency, one’s reaction is constructive and action-oriented — “maybe I can help this person” — then not necessarily does the observer have that deficiency. (This benefit of noticing flaws applies to a great extent in education and parenting, where overlooking deficiencies can be detrimental; or determining that this is not a good person for me to hire, to do business with, etc.) But if seeing the flaw results in judgment or intolerance — i.e. being annoyed, focusing on the negative, disliking the person or branding the person — the statement of the Baal Shem Tov applies. That disturbing observation is a mirror, a message to look inward. And sometimes these reactions and lessons (being bothered and gaining constructive insight) occur simultaneously.
To see or not to see?
With this teaching in mind, we can revisit the above verse with Noah’s sons to extract the deeper lesson in the Torah’s repetitive description of not seeing their father’s nakedness.
Noah’s three sons found him in a demeaning state, but they had very different reactions. Shem and Japheth averted their eyes; they did not want to see their father’s deficiency or embarrassment. To signify this virtue, the Torah adds “and they did not see their father’s nakedness,” emphasizing that not only did they (physically) refrain from looking at him, they were not thinking about his missteps — they were only concerned with helping to cover him.
By contrast, Ham, the third brother, focused on his father’s flaws, spoke about it to his brothers, and thus revealed his own failings. This contrast in characters is reflected in the following verses encapsulating the reward and legacy to their descendants: “Blessed be the Lord, God of Shem, and may Canaan be servant to them. May God enlarge Japheth and may he dwell in the tents of Shem.” (Genesis 9 26-27)
Thus, the deeper layer of the story conveys how the same sight or situation can lead one person to focus on a character deficiency while another person notices the fault only insofar as considering what can be done to improve the situation. And the main message in this extra phrase is that, at times, it is wiser to immediately push away thoughts that pop into the mind, especially when noticing flaws in others. More specifically, in addition to refraining from speaking about another’s shortcomings, we should only indulge these observations insofar as it lies within our ability to help improve the situation.