The first pasuk of Parashat Noach is confusing at first glance (BeReishit 6:9), “Eileh Toldot Noach Noach Ish Tzaddik,” “These are the offspring of Noach, Noach was a righteous man.” While it certainly is important that Noach is a righteous man, the Torah does not actually enumerate Noach’s children until the following verse. Why is this praise inserted in between? Rashi answers that the main offspring of Tzaddikim like Noach are their Ma’asim Tovim, the good deeds which characterize their lives, so the Torah first praises Noach with a brief description of his accomplishments.
Perhaps, however, we can understand Rashi in a deeper way. Not only are Noach’s good deeds considered his offspring, but they are represented by, and embodied within, his actual offspring as well. That is to say, each of his sons reflected a positive quality of Noach, told to us through their names. The oldest son, Shem, refers to Shem Hashem, God’s name, showing that Noach made it his lifelong mission to honor, sanctify, and spread the name of God. Next, Cham—meaning hot or warm—indicates that Noach followed God with Chom VeHitlahavut, with warmth and love. The third and youngest son, Yefet, which comes from the word Yafeh, beautiful, symbolizes Noach’s constant wish to beautify his mitzvot. His three sons were now expected to represent and, in effect, carry on the specific attribute of their father designated to them. Each had the potential to truly excel in his area, and pass their traits to future generations.
At the conclusion of Noach’s story, his sons must prove themselves. The Pesukim reintroduce the three sons and declare them to be the ones from whom the whole world will spread out. As if to see whether they can bear that responsibility successfully and not result in another generation like that of the Flood, the three sons are immediately presented with a test. Noach falters; he becomes drunk and uncovers himself. At this critical juncture the sons are faced with the question with repercussions for the future of humanity: will they commit to reaffirm the ways given over to them by their righteous father and follow in the ways of God, or abandon such lofty goals to instead imitate –and pass on—the immorality of the Flood generation?
Each son makes an individual decision. Cham rejects the teachings of his father. The Gemara (Sanhedrin 70a) states that when Cham sees his father’s plight, he takes advantage of his father’s unconsciousness and has relations with his him—a reprehensibly wicked act which parallels the equally treacherous behavior of those who perished in the Flood. Rather than use the potential in his name for good, he misplaces that intense love and passion through this terrible sin. As such, when Noach awakens and realizes what occurred, he essentially denies Cham as his successor, deeming him a mere slave to his brothers.
Shem, on the other hand, rises to the event and covers his father, showing that he truly emulates his father by sanctifying God’s name and preserving the dignity of his father’s. In return, he receives the blessing of inheriting Canaan and to act as the leader of his other two brothers.
Lastly, Yefet’s actions fall in the middle of the spectrum. While he does help cover his father, the devotion is sorely lacking, only participating upon Shem’s initiative (Rashi 9:23 “VaYikach Shem VaYefet”). While Yefet does not channel his potential in the wrong way, as Cham did, he does not tap into it at all. He fulfills his moral obligation of the moment of respecting his father but his actions lack that element of beautifying the mitzvah and doing it in the best, most sincere way. So while he may be undeserving of Cham’s punishment, he can be only a friend of Shem, never fully able to inherit his father’s title. All three sons were given the potential to lead this new world in the footsteps of their father and God, but only one of them managed to actualize it fully.