In this Sicha, the Rebbe brings together two related lessons of this Sidra: The virtue of Shem and Japheth in covering their father’s nakedness and averting their eyes from it; and the use of a lengthy euphemism in place of the word “unclean,” which teaches the necessity of delicacy in speech. It then solves the paradox that on the one hand we should not notice the faults of others, while on the other, we should seek to correct their errors.

1. Purity of Speech and Sight

On the verse from this week’s Sidra, “of clean beasts and of beasts that are not clean (they came to Noah and into the ark, two by two),”1 the Talmud2 comments: “An unrefined word should never pass a man’s lips, for the Torah goes out of its way and uses eight extra letters to avoid an unpleasant word.” Rashi explains that the word “tammay”3 would have saved eight letters in place of the phrase “that are not clean.” And since the Torah is always as concise as possible, the message of this elaborate phrase is that one’s speech should be at all times free of improper expressions.

The Sidra also contains, besides the directive about speech, a lesson about sight. Shem and Japheth were so careful not to look upon their father Noah’s nakedness that “they went backwards, and their faces were turned backwards, and they did not see their father’s nakedness.”4 And the reward promised emphasizes their virtue: “Blessed be the L-rd, G‑d of Shem, and may Canaan be servant to them. May G‑d enlarge Japheth and may he dwell in the tents of Shem.”5

But the story is slightly puzzling. It is clear from the fact that Shem and Japheth walked backwards, that they did not see their father’s state. Why then does the Torah add the apparently redundant words: “And they did not see the nakedness of their father?”

2. The Mirror Which Reflects Faults

There is a saying of the Baal Shem Tov6 that if a person sees something wrong with someone else, this is a sign that he himself has a similar fault. He sees himself, as it were, in a mirror—if the face he sees is not clean, it is his own which is dirty.

Now, we can ask: Why should one not be able to see a genuine wrong in someone else without being at fault oneself?

The reason is that Divine Providence is present in every event. If we see bad in someone, this also has its Divine purpose, and that is to show us our own failings which need correcting. And we need to be shown our faults in an indirect way for “love covers all faults,”7 and self-love is always strong. Man is blind to his own shortcomings. He needs to see them exemplified in someone else, to force him to reflect on himself and see their counterparts in his own life.

But the task of the Jew is not only self-perfection, but also the improvement of others: “You shall surely rebuke your friend, even a hundred times.”8 Surely, then, when he sees his friend’s failings, Providence intends him to help to correct them, not only to introspect on his own weaknesses?

To put it more strongly, a Jew is an end in himself, and not merely a means for others to make use of. How then can we be asked to use a friend for our own purposes? And without any palpable benefit to the friend concerned? If so, perhaps the reason one notices the fault is only to benefit his friend, and not that he also has the fault?

3. Noticing and Correcting

To understand this we must refer to the continuation of the above quotation from the Talmud: “A man must always speak in proper expressions.”

The Talmud, after answering a relatively incidental problem, then asks, “But do we not find in the Torah the expression ‘tammay’?” (i.e., the very term that we have been asked to avoid).

But this is strange. For the word “tammay” is found in the Torah in more than one hundred places! It is so obvious a problem that it should surely have been raised immediately, not after a more minor point. Nor does the surprised tone of the question seem appropriate to such a straightforward objection.

The explanation is, that in legal (halachic) contexts, the requirement of clarity and unambiguousness outweighs the consideration of propriety: And so “tammay” is used. In narrative contexts, however, the concern for delicate expression compensates for the lengthier wording of these euphemisms.

Therefore the Torah’s use of words like “tammay” does not contradict the principle that wherever possible we should use the more delicate phrase. And the Talmud raises its objection in the way it does, because “tammay” is used only rarely in the narrative sections of the Torah. Indeed, even in the halachic sections, when the law does not relate directly to uncleanliness but mentions it only in passing, the Torah still prefers the euphemism.9

This applies not only to speech but also to sight. When one sees a Jew doing something wrong, one’s first concern must be to seek the “halacha” (i.e., the duty) required of him—namely, that one reproaches him and tries, with tact and grace, to correct his ways.

But when one finds oneself seeing this wrong not as something directed at himself (i.e., something that he must correct), but just as a failing in his fellow (when one’s attitude is critical without being constructive), this is evidence that this is a “mirror,” and that one is oneself at fault.

4. The Virtue of Shem and Japheth

And this explains why the Torah, after saying that Shem and Japheth turned their faces away from Noah, adds “and they did not see their father’s nakedness.” It is here emphasizing that not only did they (physically) not see him; they were not even aware of his fault as such—they were concerned only with what must be done (which was to cover him with a mantle). Ham, the third brother, did however see his father, and thus betrayed his own failings.

The story conveys to us the moral that not only should we not talk about the shortcomings of others (as Ham did in telling his brothers about his father),10 but we should not even think about them except insofar as it lies with us to set them right. And whoever follows this, participates in the reward, “Blessed be the L-rd, G‑d of Shem” and “May G‑d enlarge Japheth,” and contributes to the unity and brotherly love of Israel which will bring the Messiah to the world.

(Source: Likkutei Sichot, Vol. X pp. 24-29)