At the end of Parshas Bereishis, the Torah writes that Noach found favor in the eyes of HaShem. In the beginning of the next Parsha, the Torah tells us of the offspring of Noach. The Medrash notes the juxtaposition between Noach’s finding favor with HaShem and the mention of his children. It explains that Noach’s special favor was in the merit of his sons. Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky zt”l notes that this Medrash is difficult to understand; in all its discussion of Noach’s special treatment by HaShem, the Torah makes no emphasis of this being due to his sons’ greatness, rather Noach, through his own merit, was deserving of being saved from the Flood and of being the progenitor of mankind. Accordingly, why does the Medrash attribute Noach’s special favor to his sons? Rav Kamenetsky answers this by quoting another Medrash. That Medrash discusses Noach’s ability to protect himself and his family from the evil people that surrounded him. It gives an analogy of a flask of perfume that is sealed tight, which is placed in a cemetery yet despite its unpleasant surroundings it maintains its pleasant aroma.
Rav Kamenetsky explains that Noach’s greatest accomplishment was his ability to protect himself and his family from the evil influences that encircled them on all sides in the same way that a sealed flask of perfume can maintain its pleasantness despite the great powers of impurity surrounding it. Therefore, when the Medrash says that Noach was saved in his sons’ merit it means that he was saved because he brought up his children in such a way that they were protected from the negative influences surrounding them.
This idea is further brought out by a drush interpretation of a Gemara in Brachos. The Gemara states that even if a person has said the krias Shema in shul, he must say it again before he goes to sleep. The Shema epitomizes the acceptance of the yoke of Heaven (ol Malchus Shamayim). This Gemara alludes to the fact that even if a person accepted the yoke of Heaven in shul with the community he must do it again when he is at home without the spiritual support of the community. The Gemara is teaching us that it is insufficient for a person to maintain his spiritual level when he is surrounded by likeminded people who can help him. He must be strong enough to maintain this level even when he is alone, with no external support. Noach epitomized this exalted level, whereby he was able to maintain his righteousness even though he had no assistance from those around him.
Noach’s son Shem, and his great-grandson, Ever, emulated Noach in this area, and taught it over to the individuals who came to study in their Yeshivas. With this understanding, a number of difficulties can be resolved. Firstly, when Yaakov Avinu leaves Eretz Yisroel to go to Lavan, he goes to the Yeshiva of Ever (Shem had already passed away by that time ) and learns there for fourteen years. Yaakov was sixty three years old at the time, and had spent his whole life learning from his great father, Yitzchak Avinu. Why was the Torah that he learnt from Yitzchak insufficient to prepare him for his time with Lavan? The answer is that up to this time in his life, Yaakov had grown up surrounded by tzaddikim and now that he was facing the challenge of living with people like Lavan he needed to learn other sugyas (topics), those related to dealing with tricksters, liars and enemies. The Torah of Yitzchak Avinu was not geared to such nisyonos (tests) because he too was protected from negative influences by his parents. Indeed, when Yishmael threatened to negatively influence him, Sarah threw him out of the home. In contrast Shem and Ever had grown up surrounded by evil; Shem, in the time of the Mabul (great flood), and Ever, in the time of the Tower of Bavel. Accordingly, the Torah of Shem and Ever addressed the kinds of challenges that Yaakov knew he would face during his time with Lavan.
The teachings of Shem and Ever are also mentioned with regard to the Torah that Yaakov taught his son, Yosef. Rashi, based on the Medrash, says that one of the ways in which Yaakov seemed to give preferential treatment to Yosef was that, “everything he [Yaakov] learnt from Shem and Ever, he passed on to him [Yosef].” Why does the Medrash stress in particular that the Torah that Yaakov learnt from Shem and Ever; what about the Torah he learnt from Yitzchak? The answer is that Yaakov subconsciously knew that Yosef, of all the sons, was destined to live in exile away from G-d fearing people, and surrounded by negative influences. Therefore, he taught Yosef in particular amongst all the sons the Torah of Shem and Ever because he was in the greatest need of that Torah. The others brothers misread Yaakov’s intentions and believed that he was teaching Yosef more Torah than them, because only he would continue the line of transmission. However, in truth, Yaakov was only equipping Yosef with the tools that he needed to survive his own galus (exile).
Indeed, when Yaakov is finally reunited with Yosef he exclaims, “Rav, od Yosef chai” – “it is great, Yosef is still alive”. The Medrash elaborates on what Yaakov meant by this – he was extolling Yosef’s great strength in withstanding many challenges and tests in Mitzrayim, and yet remaining steadfast in his righteousness. The reason Yosef was so successful in this area was because of the Torah of Shem and Ever that Yaakov taught him in his youth.
We have seen Rav Kamenetky’s theme which teaches us that Noach’s great strength was his ability to protect himself and his family from external influences and how Shem and Ever passed on his teachings through the Torah that they taught in their Yeshivas. The only remaining question is what does it mean that they taught a different type of Torah? In what way was it different? There are two areas of Torah in which it seems that Shem and Ever taught a different type of Torah; halacha (Jewish law) and hashkafa (Jewish thought). In terms of halacha Rav Kamenetsky notes that The Chofetz Chaim wrote a separate work on the Jewish laws specifically geared for Jews who were serving in non-Jewish armies. Such people obviously faced many unusual and difficult challenges and needed guidance as to when they could apply various leniencies and to what extent. In a similar vein, nowadays, people can be exposed to environments that pose new questions; people who work in non-Jewish environments, or people who have secular families, face complicated questions that are not necessarily addressed in the standard halacha works. Obviously such delicate questions cannot be answered alone, rather one must ask a Rav who is familiar with these unusual situations.
With regard to hashkafa, there are clearly different challenges that face people in varying situations. A person who finds himself surrounded by others who espouse very distinct lifestyles will need to study works of mussar and hashkafa that focus on staying strong in such circumstances. He may need a more constant strengthening in basics of Jewish thought in order to maintain the correct outlook when those around him may pressure him to act differently. We have seen the importance of the Torah of Shem and Ever to the development of our forefathers, and how it can apply to our lives.