D’var Torah on Parshah Noah

Max Franklin 2010

Shabbat Shalom. My Torah portion is parshah Noah. It is a very exciting parshah, which certainly helped me write this speech. In other portions, there are just laws or genealogy, but in this portion, the highlights include the near destruction of the human race and the building of the world’s first skyscraper.

This portion begins with the flood. Humanity was sinful, so God sent a flood to destroy them. In all of the world, only Noah was righteous, so God commanded him to build an ark and put males and females of each animal species in it. Many people think that it was only one male and one female per species, although the Torah tells that God did hedge his bets. He wanted two of each for the non-Kosher animals and seven of each for the Kosher animals. It’s not clear if the seven were because Noah would be eating some during the trip. Noah also brought his family, his sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth, and their families. Rain fell for 40 days and nights, and everything on Earth died. When the waters finally subsided, Noah sent birds out of the ark. When a dove didn’t come back, Noah knew there was dry land somewhere and, when all the water was gone, Noah and his passengers went back out. In a second important event in the parshah, Noah had a bit too much to drink and passed out naked (you see, when the only humans on Earth are your family you can do that kind of thing). Ham saw his father drunk, mocked him, and called Shem and Japheth to see. When Shem and Japheth came, they covered Noah and brought him to his tent, and when Noah woke up, he was furious and cursed Ham and Ham’s descendents for all eternity. Noah’s sons had children, and so on, and the human race grew quickly and spread across the world. At this point, everyone spoke the same language. They said, “Let us make a name for ourselves by building a tower that reaches up to the sky” – in effect, the world’s first skyscraper. This was the Tower of Babel. When God saw this, he was angry and scattered humans across the world and made them speak many different languages. The human race grew more and the rest, as they say, is history. Literally.

With all the destruction of the flood, I wondered about the Tower of Babel. Why did God scatter humans merely for the seemingly harmless action of trying to make a name for themselves? Why would God have such a big problem with this?

The Talmud gives three interpretations. Rabbi Shila taught that the builders intended to pierce the heavens with axes and drain all the water out so there would not be another flood, interfering with nature and, thus, God. Rabbi Yirmiya bar Elazar taught that there were actually three groups. One planned to climb the tower if another flood came. God would punish them for the same reason he would punish the people Rabbi Shila described. A second wanted to use it to fight God. And a third wanted to use it as a shrine for idol worship, a view also shared by Rabbi Natan.

The Targum Yerushalmi explained that the tower was to be crowned by the form of a man holding a sword in his hand to defy God, so God punished them for defiance. A teaching in the Midrash, an early Jewish interpretation of the Torah, is that, since the flood happened in the 1656th year of creation, they were afraid that the heavens would collapse regularly every 1656 years, and they decided to build a scaffolding to support it. Another Midrash quotes the Tower builders as saying: “God has no right to choose the upper world for Himself, and to leave the lower world to us; therefore we will build us a tower, with an idol on the top holding a sword, so that it may appear as if it intended to war with God” (Gen. R. xxxviii. 7; Tan., ed. Buber, Noah, xxvii. et seq.).

My favorite commentary, however, is one from Rabbi Obadiah Sforno, an Italian Rabbi from the 15th and 16th century. He says that the builders were trying to build a culturally homogeneous city, where everyone thought as one, as their own version of a utopia. They thought that differences of religion and diversity were dangerous, and were trying to eliminate all other religions, ways of life, and political preferences. Rabbi Sforno probably got the idea for this from his own life. While he did not personally experience persecution, he lived in Italy during the time of the Inquisition, when Jews in other European countries were persecuted.

There are many reasons the builders might have wanted everyone to be the same, and throughout history there have been many people trying to set up a similar type of culture. They may have had the views of equality or social justice in mind. For example, people living in poverty would have shelter and food. Everyone would have access to education and health care. But Rabbi Sforno also notes that according to the builders, free will, or the ability to make your own choices, could be dangerous. Perhaps the builders felt that without free will there would be no wars, religious conflict, or crime.

The society the builders were trying to make could have many terrible attributes. For one thing, no matter how hard someone works they will always have the same amount of money, and people who were already rich would lose most of their money, so there is no motivation for excelling at work. The government could choose your career, taking away freedom of choice. A big problem is that if the leader is truly corrupt, of which there is a good chance (power corrupts), he could negate all of the good things. He could make everyone poor and keep the profits for himself, or he could limit education or expression.

The government in Sforno’s view of Babel resembles some modern forms of Communism. In the Marxist ideals, all wealth is distributed evenly by the government, everyone has a standard education and health care, and freedom to make your own choices is nixed in favor of helping the general public. These are almost exactly like the good things of the society the builders of the Tower were trying to make, which from now until the end of the speech will be known as Babelism. However, like Babelism, Communism is easily spoiled by a dictator like Stalin or Lenin, who take all of the wealth for themselves. When this happens, almost all of the horrible points of Babelism occur in Communism. People are given meager amounts of money, food and education and anyone who goes against the leader would be punished.

Likewise, there were good and bad aspects to God scattering the humans around the world. The bad things are pretty obvious. Humans would be split up for thousands of years and they wouldn’t band together in a project like building the Tower for a long while. The enjoyable things are more important, but they can be summed up with one word- diversity. Being scattered and losing all communication with each other gave us valuable experience that we would not have gained otherwise. Likewise, once we discovered that other humans existed, we gained more knowledge that we would not have gained had we not been scattered. However, it has created problems. When some people switch from one culture to another, they can lose their cultural identity. Other people are persecuted or have a hard time settling in. Others have fled from other countries; these are called refugees.

In thinking about the people of Babel I decided for my Bar Mitzvah tzedakah project that I wanted to donate money to a local refugee agency. I learned from Jewish Family Service worker that in the 1980s and 90s, the Jewish Family Service helped many refugees from Russia settle in Rochester. Now, however, the leading refugee agency in Rochester is the Catholic Family Center. To learn more about these refugees, I talked to a worker at Catholic Family Center. From our conversation I learned that they mostly help refugees from Bhutan, Burma, Iraq, and Somalia. To help the refugees, the workers get the refugees education, english lessons, doctor appointments and groceries and try to help them find a house and employment. They help the refugees maintain their culture by sponsoring events celebrating the culture. They help around 750 refugees a year. This is helpful because it helps the refugees adapt comfortably to their new life. All of the different cultures make [Rochester] a richer place. Refugee agencies help to bring us together.

I would like to thank many people for helping me with my Bar Mitzvah. I want to thank Rabbi Berg for helping me work through my ideas. I would also like to thank all of my Hebrew teachers over the years, both in Hillel School and my tutors. Without them this would have been much harder. I would like to thank all my friends and family who have come from near and far to be with me today. I am sorry that my Granny and Pop and Great Grandmom Edith were not able to travel to be with us. I have been very lucky to know four of my great grandparents – I am happy that my Great Grandmother Mazer could be here today. I would like to thank my parents for forcing me to work. I would also like to thank my brothers, Larry and Curly. I would especially like to thank my grandmother Andrea Franklin for many hours of teaching me my Torah and Haftorah. Shabbat Shalom!