Weekly Torah Commentary — Noah October 24, 2014

Noach  Genesis 6:9-11:32

This week’s reading brings up an extremely relevant issue: the relationship of individual and collective responsibility in a nation.

Our western society emphasizes individual rights while nations like Russia and China accord much more weight to the ‘national interest’ or national priorities over the individual.

The Torah presents a delicate balance between both.  Individual responsibility is given equal prominence with national or collective responsibility.  In simple words, the nation is only as strong as its individual members.  One of Judaism’s sages, Hillel, put it this way:

“If I am not for myself, who will be? (personal responsibiity) But if I am only for myself, what am I?” (communal responsibility).

NoahNow let’s look at this concept with regard to the Torah reading this week.  It begins with the flood of Noah’s day and ends with the attempt to build the Tower of Babel.  If we simply read without ‘connecting the dots’, it would appear that these events have nothing in common.  The failures of Noah’s generation are detailed for us: “The world was corrupt before God, and the land was filled with violence. God saw the world, and it was corrupted. All flesh had perverted its way on the earth” (Gen. 6: 11-12). Wickedness, violence, corruption, perversion: the hallmarks of national moral failure.

By contrast, the description of Babel seems enviable. “The entire earth had one language and a common speech” (11: 1). The events in Noah’s day were about destruction; in Babel the focus is on construction. Sin in that society is not described. Yet there certainly was something unpleasing to God, given the outcome of the story.

Both the Flood and the Tower of Babel are rooted in actual historical events.  Despite the attempts of liberal modernists to mythologize the Bible, excavations at Shurrupak, Kish, Uruk and Ur – Abraham’s birthplace – reveal evidence of clay flood deposits. Likewise the historian, Herodotus, tells of the sacred enclosure of Babylon, at the centre of which was a ziqqurat or Tower of seven stories, 300 feet high and many references have been found in the literature of the time that speak of such towers “reaching heaven.”

But the Torah is much more than history. The events contained therein express a profound moral, social and spiritual truth about humanity. The Flood tells us what happens to civilization when individuals rule and there is no collective and enforced moral code. Babel tells us what happens when national agenda sacrifices individuals for its own ends.

Are we not watching – in our very own day – the same kind of disintegration as that of Noah’s society: When there is no rule of law to constrain individuals, the world is filled with violence.

Babel demonstrates the opposite.  The practice of the neo-Assyrians of that day was to impose their own language on any and every people that they conquered.

The reference seems to be to the imperial practice of the neo-Assyrians, of imposing their own language on the peoples they conquered. One inscription of the time records that Ashurbanipal II “made the totality of all peoples speak one speech.” The neo-Assyrians asserted their supremacy by insisting that their language was the only one to be used by the nations and populations they had defeated. Babel, like Egypt would be later, represents nations or empires that subjugate entire populations, destroying their national identities and tradtional freedoms.  (Sound familiar???)

With this in mind let’s take a second look at this week’s reading.

Genesis 10 describes the division of humanity into seventy nations and seventy languages. Genesis 11 tells of how one imperial power conquered smaller nations and imposed their language and culture on them, refusing to respect the integrity of each nation and each individual. When at the end of the Babel story God “confuses the language” of the builders, He is not creating a new state of affairs but actually restoring the old.

Therefore we can see that the story of Babel clarifies the dangers of crushing individuality – the individuality of the seventy cultures described in Genesis 10.  When the rule of law is used to suppress individuals and their distinctive languages and traditions, this is wrong.

So the Flood and the Tower of Babel, though apparently opposites, are actually intimately connected. In fact, the entire Torah portion this week is a brilliant study in the human condition. There are cultures who exalt individual rights and there are others who place the national interest above the individual. Both will ultimately fail.  The first will lead to chaos and violence while the second will pave the way for oppression and tyranny.

Recognizing this, it will come as no surprise that after the two great failures of the Flood and the Tower of Babel, in next week’s Torah portion, we are introduced to Abraham who was called on to create a new form of social order that would give equal honor and attention to the individual as well as to the nation; to personal responsibility as well as to the common good. That remains the unique and special gift of the Scriptures to the world.

In Tune with Torah this week = the essence of the message is balance.  While God has endowed each human being with ‘certain inalienable rights’, with them comes a ‘certain inalienable’ responsibility to one’s fellow man.  Learning to balance the two appropriately may be our most challenging quest, particularly at this crucial moment of history.

Shabbat Shalom

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