Today I delivered a commentary (Dvar Torah) at my synagogue in Washington on the weekly portion, about Noah. Some members of the congregation asked me to post it, and here it is:
“...the earth was corrupt before God, and the earth was filled with violence...it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted their way upon the earth.”
That’s clear enough: evil was everywhere, and Hashem wiped it out. Things get more complicated later, after the deed was done:
And Hashem said in His heart: “I will not again curse the ground any more for man’s sake; for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth.”
And in fact, the evil nature of man emerges over and over again. It’s one of the central themes of the Torah, isn’t it?
I have recently published a book, “Accomplice to Evil,” which recounts many cases in my generation of good people’s refusal to see evil when it was right in front of their noses. Not just individual cases of evil people, but evil on a mass scale, evil that threatened the survival of civilized societies. From Hitler to Mao, from Italy to Darfur and Rwanda, over and over again we have blinded ourselves to evil and looked away, until terrible events compelled us to finally confront it.
When Hashem says “the imagination of man’s heart is evil,” he warns us: do not listen to the misguided optimists who tell you that all men are the same, and all men are good. Better to listen to Machiavelli, whose rules for leaders, and above all for statesmen, rest on the dictum: “man is more inclined to do evil than to do good.”
Hashem orders us to fight evil: “Surely your blood of your lives will I require; at the hand of every beast will I require it” (which is to say two things: no suicide, and there must be punishment for spilling blood, whether done by man or beast). “Whoso sheddeth blood, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God made He man.”
So we must enforce justice. We must combat evil. It’s largely up to us, and it’s part of the deal with Noah:
“And I will establish My covenant with you; neither shall all flesh be cut off any more by the waters of the flood; neither shall there any more be a flood to destroy the earth.”
Any lawyer reading this–and there are many of those with us today--will see that it’s a promise of no more floods, not a promise of no more Divine intervention in the collective affairs of men. But the linkage between our pursuit of justice and Hashem’s covenant is clear enough. Punish evildoers, and things will be well.
But we are all inclined to do evil, so what happens? Noah and his sons multiply. We can read the genealogy. And, just as Hashem has foreseen, corruption sets in all over again. We are lured to it, as always.
Which brings us to the question of the Tower of Babel.
Chapter X ends with “These are the families of the sons of Noah; after their generations, in their nations; and of these were the nations divided in the earth after the flood.”
However, the very next sentence, the first words of Chapter XI are quite the opposite: “And the whole earth was of one language and of one speech.”
What’s that all about? Well, time has passed, and from the various nations of the sons of Noah, we now have something quite different: all mankind is gathered in one place–on the plains of Babylon–united in a single mission: “Come let us make brick and burn them throughly.” A vast industrial project. Avraham, (who makes his first appearance at the end of this Parashat) will later be thrown into an enormous furnace of the sort that provided the bricks for the tower of Babel.
The project of building a tower to heaven is often taken as a pure metaphor, but the Babylonians actually built such towers, called ziggurats by the archeologists. And those ziggurats had religious significance. There were shrines or temples at the very top. So it’s fair to say that the very idea of building such a tower was pagan, and thus abhorrent to Hashem.
But why were the people scattered? Contrary to some commentators’ view that Hashem promised Noah that he would never again punish mankind collectively, the scattering of the peoples from Babel is just that. It sure looks like a punishment. What was their sin?
The most colorful explanation is that building the Tower was an assault on heaven. In this view, men had become so arrogant that they thought they were entitled to Divine rewards. In the words of the Parashat, they wanted to make a name for themselves. For all themselves.
Other commentators look at it very differently. Some say that the scattering was necessary to carry out Hashem’s enterprise, repeated several times in the Parashat, that man must be fruitful and multiply, and that if everyone were in one place it would be more difficult. I don’t think the historical record bears that out; some of the most fecund populations are in very dense areas. Can you spell Calcutta? Naples?
According to Rav Blick, Rav Soloveitchik gave a political reading: he explained the difference between the generation of the flood and that of the dispersion by saying that the first was modern America (moral corruption, pursuit of money and pleasure), while the second was communist Russia, which justified its evil practices by imposing solidarity on the masses.
That is to say, at the time of the flood, mankind was corrupt one by one, each person pursuing evil according to his own desires. But the project of the Tower was a collective enterprise; everyone was required to subjugate himself to a grand vision, and everything was determined according to that single vision. Hashem detests that, for His chosen people must pursue freedom, and freely choose to fulfill his commandments.
Rav Blick has an ambitious, and, sad to say, a rather lengthy explanation along similar lines:
“This explains why this story is here, in this location in the Torah,” he says. “We are perched on the verge of the creation of the Jewish people. Avraham will be asked shortly to separate himself from his father's house, his country, his birthplace, and create an individual unit of spiritual perfection.
Why is the truth of the Torah not offered to all of humanity? Is not Judaism and its message a universal one? Why is Judaism a national religion? Why is the Torah given in a way that makes it incomprehensible to most of mankind?”
Rav Blick goes on:
“The Torah explains to us that even though the universal mass society of Babel included pious individuals (Shem, Ever, even Noah are still alive), the service of God cannot arise out of such a society. It is too repressive, too dedicated to maintaining its own existence. Man must be dispersed in order to develop individually...In this context, one nation can arise slowly, over a long period of education, trial, and redemption, which will carry on God's message for humanity. Within...Babel, Judaism is impossible. Within any world order, world empire, Judaism cannot arise. Mankind is dispersed to develop individual character, cultural diversity. In one corner, without having to worry about the destiny of all mankind, a small family will build the kingdom of God.”
So says Rav Blick. I like that, and it means, I think, that it’s not enough just to do Good as it’s commonly understood: living a pious and virtuous life. For part of doing Good involves fighting evil, whether performed by an evil man or an evil nation. That, too, is part of the meaning of the dispersal, the scattering, as it is a central element of the story of Noah. As, indeed, it is a central element of the story of our own times. Of all times.