Parshat Noah: Tower of Babel, Take Two – October 9, 2021
By Henry Morgen
Shabbat shalom. Eleven years ago on October 9th, I gave a d’rash on parshat Noah here at the Library Minyan. It was dedicated in memory of my mother, Beverly, who’s 12th yahrzeit was yesterday. In preparing for the d’rash this morning, I re-read the one I delivered those many years ago, and I discovered that what I want to share today is surprisingly similar to what I wanted to share then. In fact, I considered just reading the d’rash to you again this morning, but that’s not what we Jews mean when we say “return” or “renew as in days gone by.” We mean find something new based on our growth and life experiences since the last time we visited the parsha. With that in mind, I’m going to start with a grand view of the Jewish Bible as I see it today and zero in on one aspect of today’s Torah portion.
Simply stated, the Bible is a guide to living an ethical and responsible life on our planet. There are many examples in the Bible that reflect bad behavior and the real, flawed nature of being human. There are also a few examples of exemplary behavior. Before drilling in on today’s parshah, I want to start by observing that the books that follow the ones in the Torah scroll primarily deal with the Israelites and their struggles to establish and maintain a nation that is just and ethical on a narrow strip of land that connects three continents. The Five Books of Moses are the back story of how these people got there. And the first two pashi’ot are the back story to the back story. From creation until the start of today’s parsha is the first “half” of that story. It covers ten generations that includes the detail of the years of one generation handing off to the next and spans about 1600 years. Today’s parsha is another ten generations with very little detail about the years in a given generation (except in Shem’s lineage to Abram). This lineage, covers a span of about 400 years. Note that the entire balance of the book of Genesis only spans about 400 years. And except for the total gap in lineage at the start of Exodus until Moses’ birth (traditionally around another 400 years), the entire balance of the Torah spans 120 years.
You may ask me, “why did I start with this?” I wanted to point out that the majority of our Torah is very tightly focused on transforming our people into a nation from a group of slaves. In these early chapters that are the back story to the back story, we see how G!d’s experiment with humanity is tweaked and fiddled with until he finds one of them that in R’ Abraham Joshua Heschel’s view could be described as “Man in Search of G!d.” So, now I’m going to focus on the snippet of today’s parsha that I want to discuss.
Let’s look at the story regarding the Tower of Babel, which is one of G!d’s experiments. First, we should place this in generational time with respect to Noah’s three sons: Ham, Japheth and Shem. Paraphrasing and interpolating the text here’s what we know: up to this point, all humans spoke the same language, and they migrated “from the east” to Shinar. (For context, Shinar was a very expansive area where Nimrod, grandson of Ham lived.) With a little more detective work we can infer that Javan son of Japheth, Canaan son of Ham and Joktan great-great-grandson of Shem were very likely contemporaneous with each other and likely living at the same place and time as Nimrod and our story. That’s because after them each of these lineages breaks off. Their descendants occupy different lands and have different languages. While Joktan isn’t expressly called out in the date-span timeline of Shem’s descendants, we can infer that the events for the tower took place at about the midpoint, or at around the 200-year point between Noah and Abram.
Why do all this math? I want to show that our Bible represents a cyclical pattern of generations being more and less ethical and responsible. I’m not trying to tie the events to the exact duration; however, I am just mindful of the oscillating nature of human behavior that is so well captured in our text.
And just what was it that was “so bad” about these tower builders? The text is pretty sketchy here. Never the less I think there are two key reasons G!d felt the need to make an adjustment to the experiment at this point. The text says they wanted to build a huge tower to reach to the sky and aggrandize themselves so that they don’t scatter all over the world. You may recall that G!d’s first admonition to human beings was to “be fruitful, multiply, spread across the earth and be its caretaker,” right? So, the first point is that clearly, this generation still wasn’t “getting it”. There are many midrashim about how evil or immoral this generation was, but put simply, they’re just not living according to G!d’s most basic expectation of them. So, he confounds their language and scatters them. The second point relates to the hint about self-aggrandizement. By implication, they’re not even acknowledging that G!d is the source of their life and all there is in the world. They seem to be viewing themselves as above or outside the natural world.
Now let’s take a 21st century view of what’s going on here. Humans are unlike other beings on earth. We have the awesome power of language and translation so we can pretty much understand each other across the entire planet. We also have the ability to create written, audio and video records that can be shared with future generations who we will never meet. These communication skills allow us to pass wisdom down through centuries, allowing us to see the evolution of our knowledge base, and shortcut some of our need to learn-from-scratch. Unfortunately, this power of communication also allows for the propagation of lots of misinformation. Furthermore, we have learned to use raw materials to develop tools and build vast, complex systems that permit us to live nearly anywhere on this planet. More recently we are learning how totally interconnected our environmental eco system is, and in some small ways many of us are finally starting to see that we’re not the “masters” of the planet that prior generations thought we were. We are in fact custodians, and we’ve made a pretty bad mess of the place we’re supposed to be maintaining. And again, unfortunately, not everyone has acknowledged that our poor custodial work has brought about, or at least enhanced, some of the destruction we’re experiencing around us. We are having a “Tower of Babel” moment in human development right now. Whether you attribute it to G!d or simply the way of the natural order of things, there’s a cosmic level shake-up happening on this little ball we call our home in the solar system. This acknowledgment that we’re not outside or above nature is a humbling experience and could be turned into a daily gratitude experience for being alive and aware of the amazing gift of life we have on this planet while we still have it.
But, there’s something different about this “Tower of Babel” moment that’s very powerful in my view: we have the knowledge and we’re developing the technology to change the outcome — if we have the will to do so. We can acknowledge that we’re living in a delicately balanced ecosystem, and we understand approximately how it all fits together. It’s possible for us to start making changes to how we live our lives, how we conduct our business, and how we prioritize the way our governments use our tax dollars. Temple Beth Am has initiated a Sh’mitah program to help us focus ourselves on living more in harmony with our planet. Individually we can take steps to reduce our carbon footprint and transition to a “reduce-reuse-recycle” way of living. We can encourage our government representatives to think about the global ecosystem as part of how they allocate funding … even if other countries or jurisdictions haven’t yet figured out that we’re all in the same row boat. There is nothing more powerful that leadership by example. The torah, and in fact much of the bible points this out over and over.
And regarding acknowledging that we’re not “beyond” the natural order of the universe, let’s allow ourselves to be awestruck every day that we are alive with the free will to do things that can make a difference, little by little, to restore balance in our world, and bring us back to the Garden of Eden that G!d originally envisioned for us to live in. Shabbat Shalom.