Identifying themes is important in the study of Torah. Themes are often our tool for answering the question ‘what’s the message?’ There are themes that we can identify for books in the Tanach, for sections within those books, and even in individual verses.
Another important notion in the study of Torah is that the entire Tanach, the whole procession of the Biblical text, is a developmental process.
In the opening sections of the Torah in seder B’reishit there were several instances of highlighting the message of moral responsibility. Adam and Hava are warned that if they violate God’s command not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge, they will introduce death into the world. Adam is also told that Man is placed in the Orchard (and by extension, the world) to develop it and preserve it. Kain is confronted with the message of responsibility for his attitude and pursuant actions, and ends up killing his brother.
This week’s sedra, Noah, moves the theme of moral responsibility to a new level. Whereas the previous examples dealt largely with the individual consequences of individual action; in Noah we meet the critical idea that society’s morality can determine the fate of the physical world. Here is implied a fundamental idea: God created the physical world to embody and express spiritual or moral truths. When that does not occur, there is no longer a raison d’etre for the world’s existence. There simply is no need nor justification for the existence of an immoral world. And the determination of the world’s character is entirely in Man’s hands.
(Parenthetically, this also raises the question of: since Mankind hasn’t been so ‘kind’, hasn’t been so moral – why then does Hashem allow the world to continue to exist? This ties in to the idea that Hashem is forbearing to allow time and space for teshuvah – repentance and return to Him. One can also argue that at least in more recent generations there is discussion and debate about personal and societal morality, something which shows there is hope for mankind.)
Another one of the recurring notions in Torah is the necessity to recognize differences and distinctions. The Torah demands also that we be discriminating thinkers. One might think, for instance, that an act is either ‘honest’ or ‘dishonest’; appropriate gain, or ‘theft’. Yet we find that the halachah has categories or distinctions for dishonest gain. We find, for instance, much discussion in the Talmud Bavli of excessive profit (see ויקרא כה:יד, the fourth chapter of בבא מציעא and רמב”ם מכירה יב) as the Torah prohibits ‘when you sell or buy from your fellow, do not wrong one another.’ The Torah makes distinctions between manners of theft and the resulting punishment, such as is seen in the subtle differences between one who steals a goat and one who steals an ox; one who enters to steal at night, and one who steals during the day (see שמות כא:לה-לו).
All this brings us to why God destroyed the world in the time of Noah. The Torah highlights one of the sins that contributed to the great corruption of creation. What would be so bad, to be emphasized as a reason for universal destruction? People in the generation of the Destruction also knew to make distinctions – to the detriment of their fellows and society.
The Torah tells us, ויאמר א-להים לנח קץ כל בשר בא לפני כי מלאה הארץ חמס מפניהם והנני משחיתם את הארץ – God said to Noah the end of all life has come before me because the earth is full of ‘hamas’; so I will destroy them. (Gen. 6:13) What is this evil ‘hamas’ that so filled the earth to warrant its destruction as the only cure or fix? Rashi tells us very simply that חמס is ‘theft’. That’s it?! For this the earth gets destroyed? Won’t we later see in the Torah (in Mishpatim) that there are different manners of theft, and the restitution for them? So why now destroy the earth? Is it really so bad?
חמס is different from other forms of theft. It is more nefarious. Ramban says it is ‘theft and oppression’; but I think a most useful insight will come from Hizkuni and Seforno. Hizkuni describes the mechanism of חמס: ‘this is how the people of the generation of the Destruction behaved – a person would bring his basket full of produce to the market. Each person would come and steal a negligible amount, and so on; so that the owner could not make an actionable claim for justice.’ This was an especially cruel theft. The thieves would conspire so that each of them stole less than what qualifies as petty theft. But the repeated small thefts by conspiracy resulted in the owner’s loss of livelihood, with no actual legal recourse. No one thief took enough to be punished and forced to make restitution; but all together ruined the livelihood of the merchant. A society cannot survive like that, and the individual workers and earners cannot survive like that. Yet reminiscent of the pig, the thieves could each show their hands and say ‘look how kosher I am.’ Cruel dishonesty would continue without end or accountability. No one would be forced to admit the truth.
Seforno describes a little different mechanism: ‘landowners would forcibly steal from the sharecroppers, and the sharecroppers would steal from the landowners by deceipt. In this way all the earth’s produce was given to thieves.’ Seforno is describing a society where basically everyone was stealing from everyone else. The entire economy was working on theft, and there was no chance to establish an honest and just economy.
What both descriptions have in common is not just theft or dishonesty; but a deniability and lack of accountability that was so universal that a decent and just society was simply impossible. There was no way to restore integrity and trust among people. There was no way to pursue recourse and redress for the victims; and there was no reason for the thieves to admit their sin and change themselves. A world that denies justice and teshuvah is a world that should not exist. We must preserve and apply distinctions to perfect our understanding of the physical, moral, and spiritual domains; not to take advantage and abuse and oppress others to our seeming gain.
We could end here; but I would like to suggest that maybe there is even a connection between all we’ve just said and the big event near the end of our sedra, that is מגדל בבל or the Tower of Babel.
In our sedra, the Torah tells us of the tower of Bavel. ‘All the earth spoke one language and same words (ideas).’ The beginning sounds good, doesn’t it? Unity of minds. ‘They thought, let’s build a city and high tower and we will establish for ourselves a reputation, to prevent our being scattered across the earth.’
The Netziv asks, ‘what was the purpose of the tower?’ And here the Netziv develops a deep sociological insight. The Netziv relates to Genesis 11:1 as having an ominous implication. The דברים אחדים, sameness of words or ideas, is not because of a thorough exploration of ideas and possibilities leading to agreement. The sameness here, whatever ‘same words’ really means, indicates imposed uniformity. Someone (Nimrod, according to the Netziv’s deep analysis of the text of the Torah and midrashim) is stifling debate, the clash of ideas, opposition. The building of a city with a great tower was, in fact, an attempt to establish a totalitarian regime.
Hashem’s original command had been to spread out over the earth and settle it. This regime wanted to concentrate the human population, and maintain constraints on thought and innovation. Quite early in the Torah we are learning an important lesson about the value of individual thought, and variety in thought. Later this will be balanced with the Torah’s requirement for משפט אחת – one law for all Israel. We are obligated by core beliefs and commandments; and we must all have equal treatment under the law. But this must not be interpreted to mean that we should ever stifle individual styles and directions of thought and inquiry, or development of talents.
Here I want to suggest that maybe, just maybe the Tower of Babel was an overreaction to the events in the time of Noah. The sort of lawlessness and chaotic society, if we may call it a society, that we earlier described as centered on a selfish culture of ‘every man for himself’ called for a reaction. After the great destruction, maybe a totalitarian society seemed like a solution. Maybe the powerplay of the Tower had a rationalization behind it – to prevent a further descent into chaos which mankind might not survive a second time.
I once heard an interesting anecdote from Rav Aharon Rakeffet. Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik went to the sheva b’rachot for Rav Manny Holtzer. There he commented on what he saw as a disturbing trend among his students at the celebration. They were all beginning to wear the same hat and dress similarly. He took this as a bad sign of uncalled for conformity, and spoke out against it. I would also note the well-known insistence of Rav Yehudah Amital, founder and rosh yeshiva of Har Etzion, that he did not want to create among his students a bunch of ‘little Amitalim’. Common commitment to a shared ideal is a good thing; clones or robots are not. May Hashem bless us with a total and common commitment to His Torah, with a full pursuit of applying our individual talents and intellects to the goal of understanding, furthering, and carrying out that Torah.