This D’var Torah is in Z’chus L’Ilui Nishmas my sister Kayla Rus Bas Bunim Tuvia A”H & my grandfather Dovid Tzvi Ben Yosef Yochanan A”H & in Z’chus L’Refuah Shileimah for:
-My father Bunim Tuvia Ben Channa Freidel
-My grandmother Channah Freidel Bas Sarah
-My great aunt Rivkah Bas Etta
-Miriam Liba Bas Devora
-Aviva Malka Bas Leah
-And all of the Cholei Yisrael
-It should also be a Z’chus for an Aliyah of the holy Neshamah of Dovid Avraham Ben Chiya Kehas—R’ Dovid Winiarz ZT”L as well as the Neshamos of those whose lives were taken in terror attacks (Hashem Yikom Damam), and a Z’chus for success for Tzaha”l as well as the rest of Am Yisrael, in Eretz Yisrael and in the Galus.
נֹחַ ~ Noach
“The Building Man and the War on G-d”
Although the main attraction of Parshas Noach is the story of the Mabul, or the “Flood” (also known as the Deluge) [Bereishis 6-9], Parshas Noach features perhaps an equally important mirror story in the Torah’s larger saga of mankind, though shorter in length and relatively less drastic in its consequences; the obscure story of Migdol Bavel, the Tower of Babylon and the subsequent Dispersion [Bereishis 11].
The Dor HaMabul, or Generation of the Flood, marked the virtual end of life as all knew it. As mankind grew corrupt and as society and all morality deteriorated due to sexual tyranny, thievery among other such evil, G-d intervened to put this world out of its misery. The entire human and animal population was destroyed with the exception of one family and the world’s largest menagerie on Noach’s Teivah (Ark), as well as the fish in sea. Afterwards, G-d would start the world up again with Noach. It’s a pretty drastic account.
However, if one looks at the account of the Dor HaFlagah, or the Generation of the Dispersion, it is seemingly less drastic on a couple of grounds. First of all, the crime of the generation is not readily apparent. On the contrary, their actions seem rather mild. All the Torah really says is that the people sought to build a city and this colossal skyscraper to “make a name for themselves,” apparently to prevent themselves from spreading out and dispersing across the world. If we were giving them the benefit of the doubt—which indeed, there is room for at least some doubt in this ambiguous story—we might suggest that they sought to maintain a certain degree of unity as the Torah says that the earth was of “Devarim Achadim,” united matters, perhaps because the people believed that they were stronger together. And what could be wrong with that? Why would G-d need to interfere with such a project? Rashi [to Bereishis 11:1] explains that the people sought to ascend the sky and “wage war” with G-d [Bereishis Rabbah 28:6], an enigma in its own right, but the narrative itself doesn’t offer such information. Even if they intended to “battle” against G-d, it’s not like they could actually succeed to “hurt” G-d and accomplish any practical harm through such a “fight.” We certainly wouldn’t equate this “offense” (if we could call it that) to the offenses of the Dor HaMabul.
And yet, G-d’s intervention in this story, is, as well, less drastic. G-d does not wipe them out as He did the Dor HaMabul. He merely discomfits them by mixing up their languages and dispersing them across the world. Yes, it is somewhat drastic. It is a change of sorts, but not nearly of the same magnitude as a flood that kills out all of mankind. It’s a relatively mild response.
Although the contrast between the Dor HaMabul and the Dor HaFlagah is undeniably self-evident, the two stories have apparently a lot to do with each other. Aside from the fact that both stories involved some “public sin” (even if the sin itself is obscure) which warranted some Divine response resulting a change to mankind, there is a fundamental relationship between the Dor HaMabul and the Dor HaFlagah, namely in the form of Hashem’s response. The apparent theme in Hashem’s response, in both stories, is that of “mixing things up” (not mistaking things, but disarraying them).
The word Mabul, although, often translated as “flood,” most literally means a situation of mixing or messing up. This meaning is somewhat evident from the fact that the Torah describes the Flood as “HaMabul Mayim Al HaAretz”-“the Mabul of waters on the earth” [Bereishis 6:17], and then says later [7:6], that “the Mabul was waters on the earth.” In other words, the Mabul—or the “disarray” was manifest in the form of floodwaters, mixing and messing everything up (for if Mabul just meant “flood,” the Torah would not need to explain that the flood “was waters on the earth,” because that information would be presumed. What else would be flooding if not water?).
Looking back to the story of Migdol Bavel, the Torah explains that the name Bavel or Babylon is actually derived from Hashem’s actions [11:9], “…Ki Sham Balal Hashem S’fas HaAretz U’MiSham Hefitzam Hashem Al P’nei Kal HaAretz”-“…for there, Hashem mixed up the language of the earth, and from there, Hashem dispersed them on the face of the entire earth.” Indeed, the word “Balal” [בלל] (“He mixed”) is derived from the same root word as the word Mabul [מבול]. Here, the “disarray” manifested itself in the form of language barrier and demographic dispersion.
With this apparent connection between the two “mixing up” scenarios, it would seem that the Torah intended that the two stories complement each other, so that we’re supposed to relate to each one in light of the other. So, one has to wonder: Why did G-d respond in the form of mixing everything up? And what is the deeper basis between the different manifestations of mix-ups?
Indeed, we likely could have read the Flood story by itself and understood it fairly well without the mirror story of Migdol Bavel. However, as we’ve argued, the Tower story is quite ambiguous in its own right. We still have plenty of questions concerning that story, for example, what exactly the people did wrong, why G-d interfered, and why did He interfere the way He did.
We pointed out that unlike He did regarding the Dor HaMabul, G-d did not just storm them or flood them to death, but He confuses them and disperses them like a group of mischievous schoolboys who have to be separated from each other. The nature of G-d’s response here is fundamentally different from His response to the people of the Flood era in that G-d does not exactly punish the people of the Dispersion era or harm them in the slightest bit, but rather He just interferes with their project. In other words, it does not seem like they did a legitimate sin worth punishing. They did nothing inherently evil. In fact, Chazzal praise them for their camaraderie, something which the Dor HaMabul lacked [See Rashi to Bereishis 11:9, citing Bereishis Rabbah 38:6]. They didn’t sin with their actions per se. It was merely the idea, perhaps the thoughts or conception of sin, perhaps a sinful ideology. What was that thought or ideology?
Indeed, Rashi pointed out, as we cited above, that the initiative to build the tower had something to do with a “war” that they were waging against G-d. It seems foolish on the outset that the people thought they could wage war against an incorporeal G-d by building a tall tower, but if their initiative wasn’t at least somewhat threatening, why would G-d take issue to the point of interfering with it? Was there substance to this tower? Could they actually confront G-d and do battle with Him? That seems highly unlikely. But, then, why was G-d “defending Himself”? What “threat” was He responding to? The concern Hashem mentions in the Torah is that, “…Atah Lo Yibatzeir Meihem Kol Asheir Yazmu LaAsos”-“…now, it will not be withheld [lessened] from them all which they scheme to do” [11:6]. But what is He afraid of? So, they’re working together. He’s still infinitely more powerful than they are. What are they “scheming to do” anyway? Who cares about their group effort to build a silly tower?
It could be that there was something more to this tower, and that G-d wasn’t “defending Himself” as much as He was trying to teach them some sort of lesson by interfering with their efforts.
What was the idea behind this tower? The Midrash in the same aforementioned Rashi adds another component to the overall goal of this tower. The Midrash states that the people concluded that once every one thousand six hundred fifty six years, the firmament collapses, as it did in the time of the Flood, and so, their goal was to build a tower to provide some sort of support for themselves. Seemingly, they thought that they could prepare themselves for another flood by building themselves a tower so high that they would be protected from drowning. In light of our extant connections between the Flood story and the Tower story, this seems somewhat plausible. One might argue that another connection between the two stories is the building projects involved. Just like Noach had to build a large structure to save himself, they learned the lesson from the first flood and took the initiative to build a tower to save themselves before the next one. However, this structure would not be a wooden ark that would float on the water, but it would be made from a technologically advanced, solid material called bricks which could hopefully withstand the might of the water. And so, as a result this apparent project, G-d interfered.
But again, why would G-d care to interfere with the building? First of all, it’s not like G-d actually plans on bringing another flood. He said He wouldn’t do that [Bereishis 8:21]. And even if He wanted to, He could theoretically, regardless of this silly Tower. Either way, there’s no reason for G-d to impede their Flood-insurance project if He wasn’t going to bring another flood.
But if that’s the case, why were the people building a tower? Was it not a Noachide tradition that G-d was not bringing another flood? And what does this goal of “preparing for a Flood” have to do with the goal which the Torah actually mentions outright, that of “making a name for themselves”? It all seems strange.
However, according to this Midrash, apparently the Dor HaFlagah was working under the assumption that there might be another flood. Notice how the Midrash does not say that they argued that G-d would bring another flood, but that the firmament would collapse, seemingly on its own. In other words, they attributed the original Flood, not to G-d, but to nature—the Flood was a natural phenomenon. Thus, according to what was for them “modern science,” the Flood could happen again in a matter of years.
With this idea in mind, it seems as if the Dor HaFlagah were in denial of G-d and Divine retribution. That’s why, ironically, they accepted that, at some point, there was a flood, however, they didn’t “believe in the tradition” that G-d brought it and promised not to do it again. They believed in the historical and scientific realities of their times, but they weren’t phased by the “religious” significance of what had happened.
Perhaps, this denial is the deeper understanding the “war” they were waging with G-d. In other words, they did war with G-d by shrugging off the reality of Divine retribution and by attempting to scientifically “explain” the Flood away. By explaining the “natural causes” for the Flood, they thought they could come up with solutions for future floods without once having to think about spiritual introspection and their relationship with G-d. The Flood was a natural occurrence which they could circumvent if they would be clever and work together—that’s why they united. So, even though they could not best Hashem’s power with their tower, they could do war with G-d by opening the closet door and showing that there are no monsters to be afraid of, because with “modern science,” they can “bust the myth” and rationalize G-d away.
And what does any of this have to “making a name for themselves”? Everything. If they could successfully disprove Divine retribution, they could develop their doctoral theses, communicate their ideas to one another fabricating an argument that mankind is the true and intelligent power in this world. They would undoubtedly make a “name” for themselves. This mission is symbolized by their communal building of the tower. The building represents the craft of man—that which people can accomplish when they’re smart and work together as a community. The idea of these unique abilities of man evokes echoes of man in the Garden of Eden, when the Primordial Serpent conveyed that man could be like G-d and perhaps even create his own world [Bereishis 3:5, with Rashi citing Bereishis Rabbah 19:4]. Man could create his own influence, his own structures, anything he wants. Mankind intelligently united can accomplish much.
One should not be mistaken. The idea of behaving in a collective, communal fashion is valuable, and not intrinsically negative. G-d mentions that, in fact, if humankind is working together this way, surely, they could accomplish anything. This is the advantage of the Dor HaFlagah over the Dor HaMabul. Accordingly, G-d told the people of the Dor HaMabul who couldn’t even get along to jump in a lake—which they did…sort of. The Dor HaFlagah, though, G-d wouldn’t strike them. But, then why does G-d care so much to obstruct them? They were getting along so well. Because, obviously, their platform was ill-founded—“We can beat G-d.” When man’s goal is merely to assert his own power, when man has forgotten about his own Creator, this platform is a “war against G-d.”
What emerges is that the problem of the Dor HaFlagah was not a moral one as much as it was a religious one. They aligned with one another in the context of a theological war with G-d. And G-d denounces this kind of unity, really conformity, not because it hurts Him intrinsically (nothing can), but because, although powerful, the unity lacked the wrong foundation and would therefore not endure for the better. Yes, when they get along, they could do anything—but that means that they could even create any belief system they pleased, which means that if their goal was, in any way, antithetical to G-d, they could create their own morals, and when push comes to shove, they will fall back into the same pit of corruption as the Dor HaMabul was. There problem will become a moral one all over again. This much is demonstrated by the Midrash recorded in the Pirkei D’Rebbi Eliezer  which says that during the building of the tower, if one man fell from the tower and died, the people ignored him, whereas if one of their bricks fell, they would grieve until another brick was put in its place!
But, what happened? Weren’t they all united? Ironically, it seems that they got so caught up in the group mission, they forgot about the value of the group’s individual members. They didn’t actually care about each other. Individual humans were dispensable to them. This Midrash reflects how their so-called “unity” did not really represent a complete improvement from the selfish Dor HaMabul. It was not “lesson learned.” On the contrary, they missed the point. As their unity was only a based on a common goal and strategy, to use each other for each other’s strength, their unity was actually selfish all along. What emerges is that the Dor HaFlagah used “unity” as an attempted antidote, really a cover-up, for the same selfish mindset that caused the Flood in the first place. So, while they said “we will make a name for ourselves,” each one of them was actually thinking, “I will make a name for myself.” Indeed, man can always make a name for himself now by pretending to represent a worthy cause greater than himself—whether for science, “charity,” community, world peace, etc. If it’s intrinsically selfish, it’s not worth anything.
So, what does G-d do as a result? He tampers with the pride of man; speech, communication, the ability to identify with each other through uniform a way of thinking. By dispersing them, G-d shows them that they possess no technological advancements or scientific advantages that can best G-d’s abilities. Without striking them, He shows that their community is powerful only as much as their foundation for their community is well-founded. They can try to test their abilities, but Hashem doesn’t have to do anything as drastic as utter destruction to foil your plans and all the science that they were so proud of. G-d merely made a few changes to their situation—languages and distance—and all of a sudden, the unity was lost. Surely, it was not well-founded.
Unlike the immoral and dysfunctional people of the Generation of the Flood who misunderstood life itself and had to be literally disarranged, those of the Generation of the Dispersion had to have their selfish unity disarranged. Perhaps they could try again, reunite, and get it right. But they would have to start over if they were going to do that. If each of them would stop trying to make for himself, and if they’d stop competing with Hashem, but united together with the mission statement of Avodas Hashem, then their unity and morals would endure as well, and their relationship with Hashem would similarly be restored.
May we all be Zocheh to truly be united together in the communal mission of building a relationship with Hashem, improving ourselves both morally and religiously, and Hashem unite with us once again with coming the final Geulah in the times of Moshiach, Bimheirah Biyomeinu! Have a Great Shabbos!
-Josh, Yehoshua Shmuel Eisenberg 🙂