In Parashat Noach, we read about the breakdown of society, not once, but twice. From this perspective, it seems timely to read Noach this week. It is hard not to be mindful of the nearly one million public servants in our Federal government who are not receiving paychecks as a result of the government shut down. There is a ripple effect throughout the country as the country’s business isn’t getting done. Cancer trials aren’t happening, small business loans aren’t being made, tax refunds aren’t going out. Real people’s lives are affected. The situation is grim and painful to witness as our elected officials are unable to come to agreement on the budget. The political atmosphere in Washington is tense and surreal. Amidst all of the political standoff, a crazed woman led police on a high speed car chase around the capital before she was shot dead on Capitol Hill. She was the only casualty, but one can certainly wonder if we are witnessing the breakdown of society. So, it’s with this backdrop that we turn to Parashat Noach for a spiritual lesson.
In Parashat Noach, we meet two doomed societies: the generation of the flood and the generation of the dispersion in the Tower of Babel story.
In response to sin, the text tells us that God destroys the first of these generations through a flood which encompasses the entire world. The only survivors are Noach, his family and the animals that Noach, upon God’s command, brings into the ark.
We’re told later in the Torah reading about the next generation that is punished through God’s decree of linguistic confusion. In response to the building of the Tower of Bavel, God creates a myriad of languages. The builders of the tower, unable to communicate with each other, disperse across the face of the earth.
The structure of our Torah portion raises one basic question: Why are these two stories juxtaposed to one another? Why are they in the same parashah? How are these stories in relationship with each other, and what can we learn from it?
The Rabbis of the Talmud and Midrash offer interpretations on the nature of the crimes of the societies that in turn lend credence to their inclusion together in the parashah.
According to the text itself, the generation of the flood was guilty of hamas. What is hamas? It is a coincidence that this word is a homophone of the Islamic terrorist organization, but they are not related etymologically. The Hebrew word hamas, is understood by our tradition as violent theft. The rabbis of the Talmud describe more in full their understanding of the culture of theft and corruption that existed in the time of Noah.
In the Jerusalem Talmud, Rav Acha asks, “What did they steal? A merchant would walk through the marketplace with a container filled with grapes and each passerby would reach forth and steal a small amount, less than he could be called to judgment for (TJ Bava Metzia, 4:2).
From the Rabbinic perspective, the sin of the generation of the flood boils down to their mocking of societal norms and laws. Driven by personal greed, each individual steals from his neighbor. He does so in such a way, however, as to escape the reach of the law. By the time the merchant reaches the end of the marketplace he has no grapes left. No one, however, can be taken to court. Societal rules have been rendered ineffective in the face of personal greed.
In contrast, the sin of the generation of Migdal Bavel, the Tower of Babel, is more difficult to determine. The Torah does not clearly state the sin for which they were guilty. As a result, the rabbis of the midrash imagine the nature and extent of their sin so that we can learn appropriate moral behavior from the story. The Midrashic work Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer (24) offers the following story: If a man fell down and died during the process of construction of the tower, no attention was paid to him at all. If one brick fell, however, all would sit down and weep: “Woe to us! When will we find another to take its place?” In other words, those working on the Tower of Bavel cared not at all about the lives of their neighbors. All that mattered was the creation of the tower and the society that it represented.
In the eyes of the rabbis, the two civilizations described in Parashat Noach reflected polar extremes. The society of Noach’s time was characterized by individual greed at the expense of communal structure. The generation of the dispersion, on the other hand, was willing to sacrifice individual life to the creation of society. In the age of Noah, when everyone but Noah and his family was guilty of theft, all individuals were punished. When it came to the builders of the Tower of Bavel, however, the problem was with the society, not the individuals. In this case, therefore, only the society is destroyed.
In each era, mankind struggles to strike a balance between two opposing forces: the needs of the individual and the needs of the community. Each of these forces, by definition, impinges upon the other. In the totalitarian Soviet Union, individual rights were suppressed for the sake of the larger state. At the other end of the spectrum, it’s suggested by many that the Tea Party is ensconced in its extreme libertarian ideology where the individual is paramount, vital national institutions that support the health, safety and welfare of our country are allowed to crumble. In my opinion, neither extreme is sustainable. We have to find a middle ground.
In order to create and maintain the rules necessary for communal governance, a society must, of necessity, place limits upon personal freedoms. To cite a well-known example, you cannot allow someone to yell fire in a crowded theater. On the other hand, a society must limit the restrictions it places upon its citizens in order to allow for individual freedom of expression and action.
The particular balance that a society creates between these two forces determines the very nature of the society itself.
Parashat Noach is not a collection of quaint fairy tales. The two major narratives teach us about how, at the dawn of civilization, two generations fail in their attempts to create an equilibrium between individual and community, with the failures occurring at opposite ends of the spectrum.
In the aftermath of the failures of both generations of the flood and dispersion, the parsha closes by introducing us to Avram, who is to become Avraham Avinu, Abraham our Patriarch. He will lead the way towards creating a new society, one that strives to create a delicate balance between the needs of the community and the needs of the individual. God will promise Abraham that the society he will create, the Jewish people guided by the Torah, will be destined to endure throughout the ages.
To this day, we still strive to find the delicate balance between the needs of the individual and the needs of the community. We need this balance, and our society desperately needs Judaism’s moderating voice. May the lessons we derive from Parashat Noach provide us with valuable guidance in this quest in promoting the dignity of all human beings.