Drash on Parashat Noach 2018
Rabbi David Kunin
Jewish Community of Japan
Perusing the internet this week it was sadly not difficult to find images of destruction and devastation brought on by the power of nature. Perhaps not surprisingly, as I was in the process of writing this d’var Torah on Parshat Noach, these images called the flood story to mind, though for me without the moral content, which is so central to the Torah text. I don’t look for explanations based on human frailty to explain the natural world, though I do often wonder at our failure to act after these horrific events occur. There are sufficient human-driven catastrophes (you, I am sure, can think of many without a need for enumeration), where we have direct and consequential responsibility. Indeed, our parashah, includes an important, if confusing, example, “The Tower of Babel,” towards its conclusion. In this story, human action leads to the very overturning of culture and community.
At first glance, the story seems to be a simplistic explanation of the diversity of human language. If the text seems to ask, all humans were part of a single extended family, how then can we explain all of the languages spoken across the globe? The answer is equally simple. We were, the Torah teaches, spread across the globe because of our arrogance (through the building of a gigantic tower), which challenged the very authority of the Divine. Our languages were confused so that we could never again join in unison to act against God.
Yet as we read the text it is not as straightforward as this simple explanation would imply. The Tower was not built to challenge the Divine, but instead as a unifying symbol bringing people together (indeed some ancient rabbis praised the Tower builders for working together, even if their goal was ill-conceived). God’s reaction seems harsh and unnecessary, drawing conclusions and inferences (that the people’s next act would be conquer the heavens). God appears to punish potential thoughts, and future actions rather than current activities. The lacuna in this text (a direct clear explanation of God’s action) allows for midrashic explorations into the human and Divine motivations which better explain the story.
Our ancient rabbis taught that the Tower was so tall, that it took a year for a stone to be carried to the top. Thus, of one fell then the people despaired, worrying that it would take another year for a new stone to be brought up. But, if a person fell no one cared. There were people to spare, and thus the stones were much more valued. This failure to value human life, the rabbis explain, let to the destruction of the tower and the dispersion of humanity.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, on the other hand, interprets the story of the Tower of Babel as a rejection of enforced universalism. The universalistic society represented in the text, claims that its unity and technology give it the power of God. In their arrogance the people think that can control everything, and that they no longer are subjects of nature or even the Divine. Rabbi Sacks teaches that the Torah rejects this model and sees it as the ultimate hubris. Indeed, it is because of the tower builders’ arrogance, that it’s building leads to the division of humanity into different nations speaking different languages.
In a similar vein, the Renascence Italian commentator, Obadiah ben Jacob Sforno (1470-1550) also rejects universalism and suggests that it was the real sin on the generation of the Tower. Sforno states that the real crime of the builders was that they tried to impose one religion on all of the people in the valley – within the Biblical myth this means all humanity. God dispersed the people so that each nation would individually participate in the search to understand the divine, and humanity’s connection to It.
These challenges, highlighted by the rabbis, are still relevant for us today. Too often, we value the edifices (and isms) that we create, forgetting the people who are lost in our drive for acquisition. CEOs make millions, while their workers struggle to survive on minimum wage, and we are too often willing to sacrifice our young on the altar of ideology and national self-interest. We hide behind our self-constructed borders, ignoring (or even imprisoning) refugees fleeing from persecution and starvation. Our religious traditions are complicit and are used as excuses for violence and exclusion. Judaism, like all other religions, must face this challenge for relevance in the creation of a just and peaceful human society. In it, we find a home, and it provides us with answers and models as we search to find our place in our modern society. Yet, like many other faith traditions, it has many sides and interpretations. As a monotheistic religion, it has long embraced truth claims, which have been used to delegitimize other religions and traditions. In ancient times this belief in absolute truth led to the destruction of temples to other gods and to the forcible conversion, at least in one case, of an entire people. Belief in the possession of absolute truth has led to an increasing disharmony within the Jewish community. Internally, truth claims have been used many times over the centuries – especially in our own times – to label entire sections of the community as inauthentic or even heretical. We have also not been immune to the dangers of seeing ourselves as better than other people because of our belief in our special access to the ‘truth’ and our ‘unique’ relationship with God. The concept of “chosen people,” has led to a false sense of superiority and to at times to an explicit bigotry against gentiles.
The Tower story provides us with a challenge. We can continue on the path of arrogance believing that our constructs are absolute and unquestionable, no matter who is lost on the way. Or, we can refocus on building a world-embracing many truths and many paths, a world where none are left behind, and all are valued.