The six chapters of parashat Noah begin and end with sin and divine punishment. Genesis chapter 6 depicts a society that became totally corrupt and was filled with hamas, understood to mean violent robbery. In response, God decides to bring about an end to all flesh through a devastating flood. The punishment in chapter 11 is considerably less severe: human beings scattered throughout the world, thereby losing the capacity to communicate with each other through a common language.
But what was the sin committed by the generation of the Tower? Here there is no unanimity or consensus in the exegetical tradition. A late medieval commentator, Isaac Abravanel, reviewing the earlier literature, gives no less than eight different interpretations of the story, explaining why each one is unsatisfactory to him, before he proceeds to give his own reading.
Two elements seem to predominate among the readings of the story. One is that it is a story of science and technology. It takes considerable sophistication to build a tower stretching upward toward the heavens: indestructible bricks and mortar that can withstand enormous pressure, solid foundations, precise measurement so that it does not lean. Such sophistication was indeed available in the ancient world; the question is for what purpose was it used.
The second element, therefore, was that this tower with its top in the sky represented a form of rebellion against God, an assault on the heavenly realm inappropriate for human beings. The technology has run out of control, it was being used for an inappropriate purpose.
Given the seriousness of this sin, Rashi (on Gen. 11: 8) raises a provocative question: is not rebellion against God a far greater sin than violence against our fellow human beings? Why was the punishment so much more lenient? And of course he provides an answer: Despite their rebelliousness, the generation of the Tower worked together, they cooperated in achieving their purpose, communicating with love and friendship toward a common goal. By contrast, the generation of the Flood was one which had turned violently against itself; theirs was a society filled with hatred and internal strife. According to Rashi, God preferred a society that works together harmoniously even for a foolish goal that challenges divine sovereignty, to a society in which human beings hate each other and despoil each other. The ultimate message of this contrast is the repugnance of internal strife and the importance of social coherence.
Rashi may have written this thinking of the violence by the first Crusaders against the Jews of the Rhineland. But it has obvious resonance for us as well. Whether in Afghanistan, in Gaza, in Israel, or in the UK, a society composed of separate groups that consider only their own narrow interests and turn violently against each other is doomed to drown in the floodwaters of hatred, antagonism and mistrust. The capacity to work together toward a common objective, transcending our differences through communication and empathy, may sometimes lead to the expenditure of energy on foolish goals, but it will enhance our prospects of ultimate survival. Without such cooperation we lose all hope of seeing the fulfilment of the prophetic vision (Isa. 60:18), Lo yishama hamas be-artsekh¸ “Violence (hamas) will no longer be heard in your land.”
Rabbi Professor Marc Saperstein
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.