DESPITE THE ALLURING INTRICACIES OF Mosaic law of the past few months, it’s nice to be once again studying the Torah’s classic origin tales. This week we see a sea change (literally) in the way humans relate to their world and each other, with two stories of human intransigence and Divine response: the Flood and the Tower of Babel.
The Flood came about, so our rabbis tell us, because people didn’t respect the boundaries which had been set up at Creation. Murder and violence were the order of the day. God decided to start over again by washing the earth clean and re-beginning humanity with Noach and his family.
The Tower united humanity in one great work, but at the cost of challenging God. God’s response was to knock over the Tower and scatter the people. No one is killed, perhaps because (again according to the rabbis) the people conducted themselves in a peaceful fashion; their reputed “sin” was in valuing the material over the personal, as it’s said they would sooner mourn the drop of a brick from that great height than the drop of a human being.
In many ways, it seems we’re still trying to build that Tower — still working under a vision of humanity united in a great work, though perhaps with less hubris. When we say the Aleinu prayer at the close of services, we long for just such a world: transcending self-defined limits and boundaries, bringing all people together under the Truth that itself transcends words. It’s an attractive metaphor — sometimes the heights we reach challenge our notions of God, and sometimes we even mourn stray or straying parts of ourselves in our zeal to reach the top.
But the Generation of the Tower was afraid. “Let us make ourselves a name, that we may not be scattered over the face of the earth.” In other words: Hey! Lookit me! Their effort was ego-driven; it existed only to proclaim itself.
We cannot afford that luxury. We who try to understand ourselves by examining the stories of our ancestors may take a pointed lesson: those efforts are in vain which only serve vanity. During Sukkot we read in Ecclesiastes that everything passes and all is in vain, except for whatever joy we may derive from it. The Generation of the Tower, it seems, didn’t even have that.
May our own efforts to band together and build a little something not go in vain; may our work be guided by the One who knows all outcomes.
[Torah Portion: Noach (Genesis 6:9-11:32)
Haftarah: Isaiah 66:1-24]