Identifying the Cause of the Problem

Weall see the writing on the wall. The world we are living in is in distress. The problems are everywhere, the solutions are sparse, and the future is unclear. Is this the first time that the world has ever been in such a state? A brief look at the weekly Torah portion suggests that in fact, this is not the first time that the world is on the brink of collapse. In the generation of Noach the world was in a similar situation. Let us examine the causes of the problem then and see if there are any parallels that can be drawn today. The verse says “and the world was perverted in Hashem’s view, and the world was full of thievery and corruption”. The verse is emphasizing two problems one perversion and the other corruption. Which would seemingly be the more likely cause for the impending destruction of the flood brought at the hands of Hashem?

A subsequent verse says “And Hashem said to Noach that the end of all flesh is before me because they are full of thievery and corruption….”. The Talmud in Sanhedrin 108 points out that though the perversion amongst humans in those days was so out of control that even the animals and creatures no longer kept any of the natural boundaries that they had in the past with regards to their mating patterns, nevertheless the final decree was made upon humanity because of the thievery and corruption. In a similar vain the Talmud learns that “greater is the heavenly wrath meted out for thievery and corruption than for that of perversion”. What is the rationale for this seemingly difficult equation? Our sages offer the following explanation. Perversion as destructive as it is for the individuals involved in it nevertheless is a selfish act of desire focused at self satisfaction. Thievery and corruption on the other hand is directly damaging to the possessions and boundaries of others. This distinction is the fundamental underlying issue that runs through this week’s Torah portion.

If we take a deeper look into this matter we will find that on some level damaging the self as opposed to damaging others ultimately boils down to the same problem. Why is it wrong to steal and take advantage of others, what exactly is the objectionable element in the act itself? Is it the fact that you are not upholding your own integrity by allowing greed and desire to control your decisions or is it the fact that you are lacking the sensitivity for another person’s importance as an individual and his contribution to the world through all that he has? With regards to perversion it is undoubtedly the first element that is the main factor. In thievery and corruption it is really both.

The problem begins with the internal breakdown of one’s own integrity, and ultimately it cascades into breaching the boundaries of others in a lack of sensitivity for their uniqueness and importance as individuals. If the root of both starts from the same place then why was the decree meted out on thievery and corruption? The answer is because a human being is expected to say “why should I think that my blood is redder than that of another”? Where does each individual derive his or her existence and their possessions from in the first place? The Torah teaches us that all of this comes from the Almighty. It is given to each of us by the Almighty for the sake of each person utilizing all that he or she has been given to achieve their purpose in the overall destiny of the universe. If so just as the Almighty has a reason for giving me existence and whatever talents, capabilities, and possessions I have, so too He has a reason for giving the same sort of appropriate gifts to the next person. It is one thing not to appreciate the significance of my own relationship with the Almighty but it is an entirely different thing to interfere and even harm the Almighty’s plan with regards to another.

Noach – The Right Man for the Job or Not?

Already at the end of Parshas Bereishis we find that Noach was slated as the one who could solve the problems mentioned above. The verse says “And he [Lemech] named him Noach with the intent that this one will console us from our ways and from the frustration of our hands”. The Targum Onkelos translates the verse as “this one will console us” from the Hebrew root of “Nacham”, Rashi however chooses to emphasize a different aspect of the verse which is “this one will give us rest” from the Hebrew root of “Nachah”. The Netziv says that the name Noach was deliberately written with two letter Nun and Ches in order to allow for both possible understandings. Furthermore, he adds that that these two alternative meanings connect with both of the hopes and aspirations of Noach’s father Lemech when he called his son Noach. On the one hand he said this one will console us from our ways that is to say that the world will be consoled in Noach’s days from the ways of perversion, thievery, and corruption. In addition he said this one will allow us to rest because he will develop the use of the earth-plow for us, since until that time they were unable to do so.

At the beginning of this weeks portion we see that not only were others pinning their hopes on Noach to save humanity but when the time came Noach himself was indeed above the shortcomings of his generation. The verse testifies about him that “Noach was a righteous and perfect man in his generation”. The Netziv points out that he was righteous means he was not involved in any of the perversion, perfect – “tamim” means that he was not involved in any of the thievery or corruption.

In the end Noach did not succeed at this lofty task. He built the ark at the Almighty’s request. Any time someone came over to ask him what he was doing he would explain that I am building an Ark because if humanity doesn’t change it’s ways the Almighty is going to bring a flood and wipe out the world. No one listened to him until it was too late. Our Sages debate whether the point of failure was that Noach did not make the appropriate effort of reaching out to the people of his generation more intensely like Avraham did many generations later, or if the generation was just too bad and at the end of it all there was nothing that Noach could really do after all. The Ohr Hachayim Hakadosh following this line of thinking even goes so far to say that Noach had a direct communication from the Almighty that the gezeirah was set in stone and there was nothing that could be done. The building of the Ark was mainly for Noach and his children to survive within along with the creatures which would rebuild the world after the Great Flood.

Rebuilding the World Almost from Scratch

After the Great Flood, Noach and his children were enjoined to rebuild and repopulate the world. The Almighty speaks to Noach and commands him specifically in the mitzah to be fruitful and multiply. The Shlah Hakadosh asks a very fundamental question on this commandment to Noach. The Almighty had already enjoined the first Adam to be fruitful and multiply, why should any subsequent human beings think that this didn’t apply to them? Did anything change? Has the Almighty changed His plans for the world so drastically that human beings might have thought that the mitzvah to be fruitful and multiply no longer applies to them at this stage?

The Shlah answers that there is a fundamental change between the world now and the world of the first Adam. When the Almighty originally told Adam to be fruitful and multiply it was when both the world and the human being had not yet been tainted by the effects of eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Neither the man nor the world had become infused with a mixture of evil into every aspect of its nature. It was possible for man to elevate himself and the world to a state of complete perfection by overcoming the power of evil in one fell swoop. Each subsequent human being would have been born into the same situation. After the sin man took a continual downturn from one generation to the next eventually coming to idol worship in the days of Enosh and ultimately to the perversion, thievery, and corruption that was rampant in the days of Noach. After seeing the destruction that befall humanity in the Great Flood Noach and his children could have easily come to the mistaken impression that having children is ultimately pointless since in our present state it is only a matter of time until this branch of evil within us will eventually lead to the same havoc. They didn’t assume it was forbidden to have children but ultimately pointless.

The Almighty therefore came to Noach and told him that there is a separate mitzvah of “be fruitful and multiply” for humanity in this post Garden of Eden state. Even though the human body today is “only connected to evil all of the day”, there is still a purpose to bringing the soul down in to this world to have its chance to overcome and achieve perfection through elevating the body to whatever extent that it can. The Zohar alludes to these two vastly different forms of Divine service, that of the first Adam and that of humanity now bound to the branch of evil from their inception. It teaches that Yitzchak, who represents the Almighty’s attribute of Justice in the world on Rosh Hashanah, asks his son Eisav to bring him from the delights that he loves meaning a sampling of the deeds of men. The Zohar asks what are these plural “delights” in the form of two different forms of deeds of men that Yitzchak loves so much? One is the deeds of the perfect tzadik, one who has achieved a state of purification of self to the point where he is no longer tainted by the branch of evil within him. The second is the deeds of the beinoni – the average man, who is still struggling to serve Hashem in this world even though he is tainted with the desire for evil. The Zohar teaches us that Hashem delights from every effort of the beinoni no less than that of the tzadik.

Noach was given the mitzvah to rebuild the world of the beinoni. He was given the mitzvah to procreate and populate the world with an endless supply of beinonim. From the Almighty’s point of view this world of beinonim is just as viable as the world in its original state. We have to know that even now in the state we are in today it is not pointless to procreate. It is not pointless to build and try to make ourselves and the world we live in better. Even if we can’t uproot every vestige of man’s desire for evil we can still hold it at bay and even perhaps refine it a little bit. This too gives nachas ruach to the Almighty far more than we could ever imagine.

A Tower of Unity

It seems that Noach’s efforts were short lived because after a number of generations humanity was once again on the brink of collapse, though totally unbeknown to themselves. This time around the nature of the problem was entirely different. “And it was that the whole world spoke one language and forged one unified goal… And they said come let us build a city and a tower, its head in the heavens, and thus we will make for ourselves a name lest we are dispersed across the face of the earth.” This is a very complex verse in many respects. Our Sages derive that humanity had taken almost a complete about face from the days of the flood. Whereas the problem in those days was that humanity had lost control of their own desires to the extent that every man was for himself. This deteriorated into perversion, and ultimately thievery and corruption. Here humanity was completely unified for one common goal, rebellion against the Almighty.

What could lead humanity to rebel against the Almighty? He created the world and all that is in it for their benefit, so that they may have the opportunity to grow close to Him and cleave to Him in their service. The Chovos Halevavos asserts that the most basic foundation of our Divine service is “hakarat hatov” – recognizing the good that the Almighty has done for us, and reciprocating that goodness in our service to Him. This reciprocation is a natural human reflex, whenever someone does something good for us we naturally feel a need to reciprocate.

Perhaps more perplexing is the Almighty’s reaction to this rebellion. The verse says “And Hashem said behold they are a unified nation with one language and this is what has caused them to rebel, and now with this new found power they will not allow anything in the world get in their way…let us mix up their languages so that they will not understand one another. And through this Hashem caused them to spread out across the world and stop building the city”. What a benign reaction to such a serious breech of the covenant between humanity and the Almighty. When all they did was harm themselves or others they were all wiped out completely, but for rebelling against the master of the universe openly and blatantly they are merely dispersed and left to their own devices, how could this be? Our Sages teach us the answer with a most profound observation. The power of unity itself is so great and has such benefit and value to humanity in the absolute sense that the Almighty would rather allow it to come to open rebellion against Him rather than to see all of humanity destroy themselves through selfish dissolution. How much is to be learned and understood by humanity from this teaching still remains to be seen!

The Dispersion of the Generation of the Tower of Bavel was Really a Smokescreen

The Malbim and the Ohr Hachayim Hakadosh both assert that the whole dispersion was really a smoke screen. As we saw above Hashem was not threatened by the Tower of Bavel, in fact He would prefer unity in the world over selfish dissolution. In fact Hashem had a much more basic intent with the mass dispersion. People were so unified in the days of the Tower that they all lived in one place, all the nations of the world piled on to one small postage stamp sized city in Shinar. In addition to their rebellion against the Almighty they also had plans of creating the ultimate melting pot of ideas and culture that would result in complete uniformity amongst humanity, alas everyone would be a number… just another brick in the tower. With the powerful rule of Nimrod to bind them and all of the collective and shared knowledge and wisdom amassed to date, they planned to solve the mysteries of the universe and escape the frailty and weakness of the human condition. Although the unification of humanity was a great achievement in the eyes of the Almighty, nevertheless there was a fatal flaw in the methodology, that of whitewashing the uniqueness of each individual human being.

From the beginning the Almighty had intended that humanity would spread out and establish themselves as many distinct nations across the world. Each group of people would settle in the area that was fitting for their nature and develop themselves and the resources there until they grew to a nation. Each nation with its unique perspective and its unique contribution was meant to form the bigger picture of the family of nations. With the many different views and many distinct points of wisdom pooled together from this manner of establishment, then was the ultimate power of unity meant to be tapped.

At the time of the flood the problem was that the emphasis on the importance of the individual was way too strong and as a result there was no unity at all. Water the universal solvent was brought in to wash it all away. Later by the Tower the problem was from the opposite side of the spectrum, there was no individual at all only the massive edifice of unity. This was the underlying reason for the dispersion. Hashem wanted to foster the development of a greater multiplicity. Confusing the tongues was just another tool to foster the same kind of development. The Almighty obviously doesn’t want humans to create a jungle culture where the governing principle is survival of the fittest, nor does He want melting pots and whitewashing which mask the uniqueness and the variety that He infused into each individual. Unity from within multiplicity is ultimately Hashem’s intention for the world.