Table for Five: Noach
Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist
And they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make ourselves a name, lest we be scattered upon the face of the entire earth.” Gen. 11:4
Amy Bernstein, Senior Rabbi, Kehillat Israel Reconstructionist Congregation
The people in our story build a tower whose top is in the sky. It was common to build large temples (representing where the human and the divine realms meet) in ancient Mesopotamia. We know that the earliest of these structures appears as part of the move to urbanization in the Ancient Near East. What may seem like a unifying communal building project is clearly problematic in our story.
Perhaps Torah is telling us that not all great technical achievements are positive. Just because they have the resources to build such a monumental structure doesn’t necessarily mean that they should. With the move to cities and a focus on material achievement comes a move away from the notion that all resources are shared by the community. Inequity is a by-product of the accumulation of wealth and ideas like ownership of land. They had enough brick to build a daunting tower but did they use their supply of brick to build housing for every family that needed it? They had enough human resources to design and implement this project but did they allow for those resources to be spent on other things that might benefit both the contributor and the community? Our story suggests that it is problematic to over-occupy ourselves with impressive representations of the human relationship with the Divine. Better to manifest the relationship between us and God by living out the demands of holiness and building a society based on them.
Judy Gruen, Author, The Skeptic and the Rabbi: Falling in Love with Faith
“When human beings try to become more than human, they quickly become less than human,” writes Rabbi Jonathan Sacks on parshat Noah in his book, Covenant & Conversation — Genesis: The Book of Beginnings. After the triumph of learning how to make bricks, in a region where there were no construction materials at all, people felt that “the sky was the limit” in their building potential. With egos swollen from their technological feat, the race was on to build the Tower of Babel.
While the aspiration to build was not wrong, the pretension to become God-like was not only absurd, but dangerous. They tried to reach the heavens (shamayim) only in order to make a name (shem) for themselves. It was pure self-aggrandizement. The Torah brilliantly underscores this point by the double use of the root word – shem — meaning both “heavens” and “name.” The people wanted nothing less than to override God’s dominion of the earth.
In discovering their own power to create, they became materialistic, cold, and calculating. When a newly formed brick fell and broke, they cried, but when a worker fell and died, they felt nothing. God’s morality endows each individual with inherent dignity and worth. This was the morality they felt they had outgrown. As Rabbi Sacks concludes, “Only a respect for the integrity of creation stops human beings [from] destroying themselves.”
David Porush, Student, Teacher, Author, Amateur
Before the Flood, the Sages say, nature was so corrupted that humans and animals both preferred abominable practices to reproducing. Thus Noah, despite his flaws, was the right man to ensure the biome’s survival. He’s a patient zoologist, entomologist, herpetologist, ornithologist, botanist, veterinarian … even oenologist! As God’s chosen natural philosopher and intimate, he knows firsthand that the natural world is not merely mechanistic and physical, it is metaphysical.
After the Flood, united by their common tongue, people gather in Babel to “make a name” for themselves. They build a tower so grand, it will have its “head in Heaven.” Ramban suggests that they’re after the Tetragrammaton — the Name of God associated with Creation — but that only students of the Kabbalah will fully understand the mystical hubris of their ambition. We can guess though: humans hoped to dominate the universe by challenging God and replacing His vital role with their own grandiose engineering. Why does the Torah focus on the bricks they made that “served them as stone”? Perhaps it is reminding us of Egypt. Folks are now enslaved to their delusion of a merely materialistic cosmos, bereft of transcendence, a form of idolatry. Fittingly, God scatters them in a flood of confusion.
In our scientific age, the rainbow still reminds us of the pact between God and humanity: yes, the world is indestructible. But nature will fully yield its treasures to our ambitions only when we acknowledge that it is continuously vitalized by Divine attention.
Rabbi Chaim Singer-Frankes, Interfaith Chaplain
We righteous clods contain multitudes; unrelenting and resourceful— a smorgasbord erupting with holy potential. Commanding atop mountains real and ersatz, we are tempests of invention and revolution. Spontaneously manipulating Divine treasures to untold ends, we dream up fresh ways to both decipher and gerrymander creation. These truths do not preclude our capacity for excess and arrogance.
God partnered with us in Her work, endowing us with abundant latitude. Perfection approaches at a severe cost. Even the Holy One strives through trial and error, no? First attempts yield mixed results. Insatiable, we plow our hands into Eden’s cookie jar and are summarily dismissed from God’s kitchen. In time She washed away almost everything, to give it another whirl.
On that account who could blame us if sometimes we push the boundaries. God named the rooster to signify day from night, but goodness, it sure has lovely feathers to garland a fancy hat! God created clay and fire, so naturally we fabricated bricks, even if Cain found sufficient novelty in a plain old rock. So relieved that God furnished us with Her sense of humor also.
Does the Torah imply that Ha’Shem evolved over time as we did? Hasty as toddlers, we push as if there are no boundaries, noticing, eventually, how very good it is that there are others in the room. We needn’t constantly go it alone. Our collaborations bear fruits and suits, tables and gables, kin and sin. Shabbat Shalom.
David Sacks, Torah Podcaster: TorahoniTunes.com
Did you know that you are taller than the highest skyscraper? We think that we end at the top of our heads, but nothing could be further from the truth. Every person is like a tower that stretches from the heavens to the earth.
The Zohar teaches that the body is the shoe of the soul. This means that just like your shoe covers a very small part of your body, so too, your body covers only a tiny percentage of your soul.
Our holy Torah teaches that there are five levels to the soul. Three of those levels exist inside your body, while the other two transcend your physical self and go all the way up to the heavenly Throne of Glory.
In other words, we start on earth and stretch to the heavens. Or put another way, every person straddles the universe. That means that every good thing you do impacts and reverberates throughout creation. Even the coin you put into a tzedakah box when you’re all alone.
But there’s another side to the picture. When we only channel our greatness to make a name for ourselves, we become scattered, and everything falls apart.
That’s because our expansive being longs to express itself expansively. So, the next time you look in the mirror, know that you’re bigger than you think. And since we know now that everything you’re doing is already changing the world…
How do you want to change the world?
With thanks to Rabbi Chaim Singer-Frankes, Rabbi Amy Bernstein, David Sacks, Judy Gruen, and David Porush.
Get the best of Accidental Talmudist in your inbox: sign up for our monthly newsletter.
Read more at the Jewish Journal.