Parshat Noach: Genesis 6:9-11:32; Isaiah 54:1-55:5.
The name Canaan appears for the first time in this story of the degradation of Noah.
Canaan was not one of his sons, but his grandson, a son of Ham. The truth is that mentioning Canaan here seems totally out of place and superfluous. Noah becomes drunk; his son Ham does nothing to hide his father’s shame but serves as talebearer, reporting his father’s nakedness to his brothers outside. Shem and Japheth cover their father to protect their father’s honor. Ham is the villain; Shem and Japheth are the heroes. Why mention Canaan?
More to the point, Canaan is a super-charged name; after all, the Land of Canaan is the Land of Israel, which will ultimately be taken over by Abraham and his progeny, descendants of Shem. There must be a special significance to the mention of Canaan precisely at this biblical juncture, just before the text records the descendants of Noah and the nations they generate.
In order to further understand the biblical text and its significance today, we must take a look at the next time the Land of Canaan appears in the Bible, right at the end of our Torah portion: “And Terah took his son Abram … and they departed with them … to set out for the Land of Canaan; they arrived at Haran and settled there.”
It is curious that the text tells us Abram’s father meant to go to the Land of Canaan but never really arrived. At the opening of the next Torah portion, God appears to Abram, commanding him to “go away from your land, your relatives and your father’s house [in Haran] to the land that I will show you [the Land of Canaan].”
The Ramban suggests that in mentioning Canaan, the Bible is setting the stage for an Abrahamic takeover of the Canaan, soon to become the Land of Abraham — Israel.
Canaan is pictured as a special location, with specific ethical requirements. Only those who truly aspire to ethical monotheism will be worthy of making Canaan (Israel) their eternal homeland. Canaan, the grandson of Noah, forfeited his right because, instead of following in his grandfather’s paths of righteousness, he chose to destroy his grandfather’s ability to pass these values on to succeeding generations. (Commentators suggest Canaan castrated his grandfather.) Abraham, unlike Noah, succeeded in parenting a grandson — Jacob-Israel — dedicated to righteousness.
Herein may well be a warning: The descendants of Abraham will be privileged to live in Israel only for as long as they subscribe to such an ethical lifestyle. Their return will always be dependent on the ethical quality of the daily lives they lead.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.