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Doing the Right Thing


In this week’s parasha, we read the following:

Noah, the man of the soil planted a vineyard. He drank of the wine and became drunk, and he uncovered himself within his tent. Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father’s nakedness and told his two brothers outside. Shem and Yefet took a cloth, placed it against both their backs and, walking backward, they covered their father’s nakedness; their faces were turned the other way, so that they did not see their father’s nakedness, (Gen. 8:20-23).

Rav Hershel Schachter serves as the senior Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva University. In his book Nefesh HaRav (which is based on the teachings of his rebbe, Rav Soloveitchik), he points out that the verse describing the effort of Shem and Yefet to cover their father is in the singular — ויקח שם ויפת instead of ויקחו -they took (pp. 272-273).  

Rashi explains that Shem was more passionate about performing this mitzvah of honoring his father and that is why the mitzvah was attributed primarily to him. For this reason, Rashi says, Shem merited that his descendants would receive the mitzvah of tzitzit and the descendants of Yefet would ultimately merit being buried in the Land of Israel. 

What is the message that Rashi is looking to convey? 

Rav Schachter explains that Shem was motivated by ethics — doing the right thing. Yefet was motivated by etiquette — doing what is right in the eyes of others. 

Tzitzit is a private mitzvah. The Magen Avraham (8:13) writes that it should specifically be worn under one’s clothes. Burial is a mitzvah of kavod habriyot – human dignity, of etiquette. 

What’s our takeaway? We should do good because it’s the right thing to do, not because others are watching.