Torah Sparks

October 24, 2009 – 6 Heshvan 5770

Annual (Gen. 6:9-11:32): (Etz Hayim, p. 41; Hertz p. 26)
Triennial (Gen. 11:1-11:32): (Etz Hayim, p. 58; Hertz p. 38)
Haftarah: (Etz Hayim, p. 64 ; Hertz p. 41)

Prepared by Rabbi Joyce T. Newmark
Teaneck, NJ

Torah Portion Summary

Pervasive human wickedness causes God to despair of His creation and to decide to destroy humanity. But first, God tells Noah to build an ark in which he and his family, animals and birds will survive the flood. Forty days of rain and a yearlong flood wipe out all life on earth, save those in the ark, who leave the ark to begin again. Noah’s first act upon leaving the ark is to offer sacrifices of gratitude to God. God blesses Noah and his family and places the rainbow in the sky as a sign of the covenant between God and man, pledging that God will not again bring a flood to destroy all living creatures. Noah then plants a vineyard, makes wine, and becomes drunk; this leads to Noah cursing his grandson Canaan. The descendents of Noah’s sons, Shem, Ham and Yaphet, are listed. The portion concludes with the story of the Tower of Babel and the dispersion of humanity and lists the 10 generations from Noah to Abraham.

1. The Edifice Complex

And they said, “Come, let us build a city, and a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name for ourselves; else we shall be scattered all over the world.” (Genesis 11:4)

  1. Another interpretation of what they said: It is not for Him to choose for Himself the worlds above and give us those below. Come, let us make a tower, place an image on its top, and put a sword in its hand, and it will seem that it is waging war against Him. (Bereisheit Rabbah 38:6)
  2. “Let us make a name,” an idol that will be situated in the tower. The fame of its height, and the huge size of the city, will spread among the whole human race in such a manner that this deity will be considered as the “deity of deities” among mankind, and all will seek it out. The one who would rule over that city would rule over the entire human race, since everyone would seek it out – and this was indeed their intent. (Rabbi Ovadia ben Jacob Sforno, 1475-1550, Italy)
  3. The tower had seven levels on its east and seven on its west. The builders brought the bricks up on one side and came down on the other. If a man fell down and died, no heed was given to him. But when a brick fell down, they stopped work and wept, saying, “Woe unto us! When will another be brought up in its stead?” (Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer 24)
  4. The sin of the generation of Babel was similar to that of Adam and Cain and his descendents. With the increase of creature comforts and leisure time, they became dissatisfied with the natural bounty provided by God and became interested in improving human techniques, in building cities, in leaving their agricultural life and becoming urbanized, and developing a highly organized political and social life, imagining this was the goal of mankind, with all the offices, prestige, acquisition of wealth, violence, robbery, and bloodshed that they, of necessity, involved – a state of affairs that did not obtain when they lived each one for themselves a pastoral existence... The true implication of the text is that originally man shared one universal language and all possessions were common to them all. No man had any private property. Everything was in common, just like their language. But when they engaged in building the city and tower and the invention of artificial works, they forsook their universal brotherhood and established private property, through barter and monopolization prompted by their covetousness to take everyone for himself and say, “Mine is mine and yours yours.” (Don Isaac Abravanel, 1437-1508, Spain and Italy)
  5. That generation, being united by one common language and sharing the same ideas, became unanimously convinced that the aim of their existence was a political society. Their sin was not in trying to achieve this but in regarding it as an end in itself rather than as a means to a still greater end – spiritual wellbeing. (Akedat Yitzhak (Rabbi Isaac Arama), 1420-1494, Spain)

Sparks for Discussion

The Torah tells us that the sin of the generation of the flood was lawlessness and robbery. However, it does not specify the sin of the generation of the dispersion. Our commentators offer suggestions: idolatry, arrogance, callousness, materialism. Why do you think God punished this generation? Are any of these sins is still a problem today? In what ways?

Abravanel argues that the sin of this generation was that it rejected an idyllic pastoral life in favor of urbanization and technology. Do you think he makes a valid point? Do political societies and private property inevitably become corrupt? Are our institutions, science, and technology a blessing or a curse?

2. United We Stand?

And the Lord said, “If, as one people with one language for all, this is how they have begun to act, then nothing that they may propose to do will be out of their reach. Let us, then, go down and confound their speech there, so that they shall not understand one another’s speech.” (Genesis 11:6-7)

  1. It would appear to me that this decree was not a punishment, but, on the contrary, it was an action taken for the benefit of mankind. The major significance of the Tower of Bavel episode is not at all the attempt to construct a tower, but refers back to what is stated earlier, that “the whole earth – the renewed mankind after the flood – was of one language and of one speech.” After the failure of the construction, different languages arose, and that entailed different speech. It appears to me that the root of the error, or sin, of the generation of the separation was not the building of a city and tower, but the aim to use these artificial means to ensure a situation of “one language and one speech” – of centralization, which, in modern parlance, would be known as totalitarianism. One language and one speech is, according to many naïve people in our days, a description of an ideal situation: all of humanity a single bloc, without differentiation, and, as a result, without conflicts. But one who truly understands will know that there is nothing which is more threatening than this artificial conformism: a city and tower as the symbol of the concentration of all mankind about a single topic – where there will be no differences of opinion and where there will be no struggle over different viewpoints and values. One cannot imagine greater tyranny than that, one cannot imagine a greater mental and moral sterility than that – that there should be no exceptions and that there should be no deviations from what is accepted and agreed upon, and this being maintained by the artificial means of a city and a tower.

    In His mercy and compassion for mankind, God prevented this from occurring, and He made a humanity where a totalitarianism of complete unity cannot be. Thus, there are differences and contrasts, differentiation of thought and differentiation of values, in which people have to struggle for their values, for their aims, and for their desires which differ one from the other. (Yeshayahu Leibowitz, Accepting the Yoke of Heaven, pp. 17-18)
  2. Rabbi Kahane said: A Sanhedrin [of 23, which judged capital cases], all of whose members felt that [the accused] was guilty [must] acquit him. What is the reason? We have learned that [when the vote of the court is to convict] the judgment must be delayed overnight [to give the judges the opportunity] to search for a defense [for the accused], but these judges [having voted unanimously to convict] will no longer consider any basis for acquittal. (Talmud Sanhedrin 17a)
  3. [After the death of his learning partner Resh Lakish] Rabbi Yohanan said: Whenever I stated an opinion, the son of Lakish used to raise twenty-four objections, to which I was compelled to give twenty-four answers, and as a result the subject became clear. (Talmud Bava Metzia 84a)

Sparks for Discussion

Was the multiplication of languages and the dispersion of humanity in fact a punishment? Yeshayahu Leibowitz claims that God did this for our benefit, to help protect humanity from tyranny and totalitarianism. What do you think of his argument? How much freedom do you think people would be willing to sacrifice to prevent conflicts? In what ways does “artificial conformism” threaten our society? What danger did the rabbis fear when they decreed that a court whose 23 members all voted “guilty” must free the accused? What is the difference between unity and uniformity?

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