W.C. Fields said, "Never work with animals or children, [they steal the spotlight]." Though no one ever accused him of being a Torah scholar, his insight was certainly applicable to this week's Torah portion.
Parashat Noach, the second portion in the Book of Genesis (and my bar mitzvah portion) is perhaps the most universally known and, at least by children, most adored portion in the entire Torah. This is in part, no doubt, because it has not one animal, but all animals — and they come in pairs! So beloved and recognizable is this Torah portion that we tend to forget that there is more to it than the animals coming on the ark, two by two, the dove sent to find dry land, the rainbow, and our ancient ship builder, Noah. Tucked in at the end of the portion that bears his name is a small, poignant story about how the people (Noah's descendants) focused their energies after the waters and fear receded, and they were once again on dry land.
We are told:
"All the earth had the same language and the same words. ... they came upon a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there. ... Then they said, ‘Come, let us build a city with a tower that reaches the sky, so that we can make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over all the earth!" (Gen. 11:1-:4).
A midrash explains:
"Many, many years passed in building the tower. It reached so great a height that it took a year to mount to the top. A brick was, therefore, more precious in the sight of the builders than a human being. If a man fell down and met his death, none took notice of it: but if a brick dropped, they wept, because it would take a year to replace it. So intent were they upon accomplishing their purpose that they would not permit a pregnant woman to interrupt herself in her work of brickmaking when she went into labor. Molding bricks she gave birth to her child, and, tying it round her body in a sheet, she went on molding bricks." (“Yashar Noah,” in Louis Ginzberg, The Legends of the Jews ).
How do you measure your day? I once asked my friend who is a bricklayer this question, and he explained that the universal standard for a good day of bricklaying is a 1,000 bricks day. It got me thinking, what would my 1,000-brick-day look like? What is my universal standard for a successful day?
As a parent, I could say it’s getting all the kids washed, fed, off to school, and then to soccer or hockey, and back home again. Then it’s getting them to do their homework, brush their teeth, and get to bed at a reasonable hour.
As a working adult, I could say it’s getting to work on time, and responding to all my emails and messages — the modern-day equivalent of bricks. Then it’s meeting with constituents, handling synagogue programs and business, and getting home in time for dinner with my family.
What makes those days good days is not the quantity of work I do or the number of interactions I have, it’s the quality. The bricklayer, if reasonably competent at his task, can be irritable, antisocial, half asleep, and day dreaming as he lays each brick. He can take his anger out on the bricks; he can curse at the bricks as he schleps them up the wall. He can listen to music, talk on his cell phone; it doesn’t matter. As long as the wall is solid at the end of his day and it contains 1,000 new bricks, it’s a good day of bricklaying.
But people are not bricks: we can’t take out our anger on people without consequence. We can’t ignore them or tune them out if the purpose of our day is to interact with them with care, compassion, and attention. The great sin of the Tower of Babel’s builders was that they treated people like bricks and bricks like people. They wasted the one thing that set them apart from machines, which, had they existed in ancient times could have helped build the Tower even better — they neglected their own humanity. When the bricks of our life become more important than the people in it, we, too, build a tower that is an affront to the purpose of our creation.
The midrash continues that after God confounded the people’s language and scattered the people throughout the globe, the tower remained:
“ ... a part sank into the earth, and another part was consumed by fire; only one-third of it remained standing. The place of the tower has never lost its peculiar quality. Whoever passes it forgets all he knows.” (ibid., Ginzberg)
When we treat people like bricks, we forget what we know about ourselves and about others. We forget that the measure of our day is not how many bricks we lay, how many emails we answer, how many lunches we pack, how many children we schlep: the measure of our day is whether each person we touch, including ourselves, feels valued as a person, a blessing, and a gift from God in our lives — not a brick.
Rabbi Dan Moskovitz is senior rabbi at Temple Sholom in Vancouver, BC, and author of “The Men’s Seder” (MRJ Publishing). Rabbi Moskovitz is also chair of the Reform Rabbis of Canada. His writing and perspective on Judaism appear in major print and digital media internationally.
In a tragedy, a decent person or an ordinary group makes a mistake. Then there are consequences and things don’t end well.
This week’s Torah reading, Parashat Noach, brings us the story of the Tower of Babel (Gen. 11:1-9). This tale is clearly a tragedy. Earth people build a tower that breaches divine heights. God is threatened enough to mete out a group punishment. God knocks down the tower and scatters the builders. Then God scrambles their language.
In the midrash cited by Rabbi Moskovitz, the people went into mourning for their skyscraper and cried over the fallen bricks. Rabbi Moskovitz goes on to talk about what happens when people care too much about things like bricks and not enough about people. He reminds us that we lose part of ourselves when we lose our connection to the people around us.
But what if the Tower of Babel story had a different ending? What if the Torah started the story with the same premise but took out the part about an avenging deity? What if the builders met with an ordinary defeat, and brought about a more straightforward and slightly happier ending? And what if the story were written as a musical? In this reimagined "tower story," I added a plot twist and, since I'm a cantor, a song:
Once upon a time, a very long time ago, all humans spoke the same language in the very same way. There were no dialects or regional accents. There were no such things as baby talk or jargon. The talk was plain, and everyone understood everyone else. There were no misunderstandings because every word was clear-cut and had a single meaning. Every phrase could be interpreted only in one way.
These early talkers got along very well, as you might imagine. They were friendly, cooperative, and worked well in groups. They were also creative and thoughtful.
One day, these humans decided to make bricks out of clay by baking them. They stuck these bricks to each other with a locally-sourced adhesive substance, which they called “red slime.” While they were playing with their bricks, they found that it was fun to stack them up, and, that if they did that carefully, they could build a very tall tower. While they worked, they sang a work song called, the “Babylonian Brick Song.” It went like this:
Here is a brick!
Here is some red slime!
Let us build a tower
So we can climb!
It had a very catchy tune, something like Lewandowski’s L’cha Dodi. (Go back and sing the words to that melody!)
Everyone sang it in the same key and to the same beat. These early talkers did not have the word “earworm” but the “Babylonian Brick Song” quickly became the very first one. Every person from the tiniest baby to the oldest wise-woman knew the melody and the words. As you might guess, people started to add new verses:
Our tower is so very high
The top of it is in the sky!
And soon you will all know our name.
Our height establishes our fame!
Our tower’s so high.
It’s already in the sky!
You’ll soon know our name.
Our height is our fame!
Eventually the structure’s center of gravity shifted by a single cubit and earth herself pulled it down. The tower collapsed and scattered its builders far and wide. The building project failed, but that was not the worst part. As the earth-folk landed near and far from their fall, they realized that they had forgotten their one unifying language! They were able to talk, but each family spoke a different tongue! Understandably, they were frightened! How would they cooperate on joint projects? How would they even make themselves understood to other families?
Suddenly, as if to comfort herself, one child began to sing to herself. Of course, she sang the “Babylonian Brick Song” -— and she sang it in a loud voice. Everyone joined in with relief because they all knew the melody and the beat. It didn’t matter that their words for things were all different. They learned many languages as they sang together slowly, pausing after each word for translation. They compared their different words for “name” and “sky” and “red” and “climb.”
Because of the music, they were able to learn each other’s languages!
They decided to repurpose the zillions of fallen bricks to build affordable green housing. The red slime took on stripes of orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet.
Everyone lived happily ever after.
Cantor Barbara Ostfeld is the first ordained woman cantor in Jewish history and the author of Catbird: The Ballad of Barbi Prim. She is a popular speaker and an enthusiastic singer of protest songs, especially the new ones.
Noach, Genesis 6:9−11:32
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 56–91; Revised Edition, pp. 57–83
The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, pp. 35–58
Haftarah, Isaiah 54:1–55:5
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp.1,684–86; Revised Edition, pp.1,492–94