Have you ever seen the skyline of New York or L.A. or Chicago? On a beautiful day you can see all the buildings clearly—office towers, banks, and schools, drawing your eye upward toward the clouds and the sun. Even small towns put their obelisks and spires in the center square, for all to see. We have to admit it: ours is a country that loves skyscrapers, and our skyscrapers are our symbols of status and importance. Good thing we don't live in Babel!
Babel is that famous place in this week's parasha whose residents tried to build a tower into the heavens. God became furious with them, destroyed their tower, and scattered them throughout the world. If that weren't enough, God also confounded their speech, ensuring that they could never again collaborate on such a project. We, a tower-loving country, are compelled to look hard at this short nine-line verse story and ask: What was so bad about Babel? Could what happened to its inhabitants also happen to us?
The answer to these questions lie in the text of the story itself. Hidden in these terse lines are hints that tells us why Babel was so bad that it had to be destroyed. The first clue is found in the beginning of the fourth verse (Genesis 11:4): "Come," the people said, "let us build us a city and a tower with its top in the sky... ," In the Hebrew the purpose of the city is especially clear: Havah niveneh lanu. The city and the tower are lanu—for us. Houses and offices and this great tower are only for the builders themselves. Then where do the visitors and newcomers who want to move there go? What about the homeless? This is the first mistake the people of Babel make. Their actions are completely for themselves. They do not consider the needs of others in their venture.
The next clue is found in the second part of the same line: The inhabitants intend to build this city and tower "to make a name for ourselves." The people of Babel thought: These physical places will be monuments to our lives. Our names will be preserved in these buildings! But our tradition reminds us of the flaw in such thinking. In Midrash Tanchuma, our rabbis teach that we acquire three names in our lifetime. The first is the name we area called by our parents. The second it the name other people call us, and the third is the name we earn for ourselves as a reflection of our character, our moral stature, and our goodly and godly qualities. The third name is, of course, the most important. If we were to spend all our time building towers in the hope that they would preserve our names, we would never have time to do those things that contribute to a goodly and godly character.
Finally, the third error of the Babel-building project is not found in the story itself but in a midrash. This addition to the Torah text suggests that the people became so focused on the tower that they lost sight of the value of human life. "As the tower grew in height, it took more than a year to get bricks from the base to the top. Thus bricks became more precious than human life. When a brick slipped and fell, the people wept. But when a person fell and died, no one took notice." Can you imagine living in a place where our work means more to us than our friends and family do?
Perhaps that is why God came down to Babel at the end of the story to see the tower before destroying it. Perhaps God couldn't believe that people would be so self-centered and so removed from the divine hope for human kindness and compassion in the world. As we look around at the awe-inspiring towers in our cities, perhaps we also should ask what prompted people to build them, as well as the questions raised by this story about our own motivations for building our businesses and professions. For whom do we work? What name will we leave behind? Which bricks in our lives have become more important than our families? Is Babel really only a thing of the past?
At the time of this writing in 1997, Amy M. Schwartzman was the incoming senior rabbi of Temple Rodef Shalom, Falls Church, Virginia.
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be a hero? Imagine having people look up to you and mimic your tastes in food, clothing, and entertainment. Ponder the joy of having others emulate your values and dreams. But before you get carried away by fantasy, be careful. Being considered a role model can be empowering, but it can also become frustrating and confusing.
Most people never set out to be heroes. A combination of being the right person in the right place at the right time results in an individual acting in such a way that others notice his or her actions. In the blink of an eye, this individual becomes a role model for others.
Noah, the hero of this week's parasha, is well-known. He and his family were living a simple, honest life when they were singled out by God to build an ark, to save animals of every kind, and to repopulate the earth after the Flood receded. According to the Bible, we have Noah and his family to thank for carrying out God's work, thereby ensuring the very survival of life on earth. Perhaps Noah deserved this honor. The Torah teaches that Noah was chosen because he "was a righteous man; he was blameless in his generation" (Genesis 6:9). His righteousness led God to chose him as the one through whom the covenant would be established. Tradition trumpets his courage in building the ark while being derided by his neighbors.
But what happened to Noah after his moment in the limelight—after the waters receded, the animals disembarked, and he built an altar to the Eternal? Noah's next recorded action was to plant a vineyard in order to make wine, ostensibly to praise the Eternal. But no sooner had the wine fermented, then Noah was discovered drunk, lying naked within his tent.
After reading this passage, many people joke about it. They say that anyone who had to live in close quarters with a bunch of animals for so long, would also crave a drink afterward. They excuse Noah for his onetime overindulgence, maintaining that "he needed temporary relief from the pressure of saving the animals." Other people deem this unfortunate episode in the life of their hero unworthy of their attention.
But our rabbis instruct us otherwise. They note that Noah, who had vast responsibilities to rebuild and repopulate the new world, turned instead to alcohol. For Noah, the pull of booze superseded God's command to repopulate the earth. To the rabbis, the symptoms are unmistakable. Thus they count Noah among the Jewish alcoholics.
Like the thousands of Jewish alcoholics and addicts in our own communities, Noah was far from perfect. Yet the Torah records his failings in addition to his praiseworthy traits to remind us that everyone has character defects. Learning that our heroes are human—that they have failings—can be disappointing. For some people, such a revelation can cause them to reject even the positive traits that made the individual a hero to them in the first place. The Baal Shem Tov, a wise and wondrous rabbi, once said, "The world is full of wonders and miracles [problems and pain], but human beings take their little hands and cover their eyes." It is true that there was once a time when we Jews did hide our eyes from the pain and suffering of our fellow Jews—even our heroes—especially when issues that we were uncomfortable discussing were involved. Thus we closed our hearts and minds to the addicts and alcoholics, the overeaters and gamblers. We tried to ignore the problems in our midst. But times are changing quickly, as is our understanding of Judaism.
By including this episode, the Torah teaches us that the Jewish family and the Jewish community must recognize the pain and problems of our members and reach out and help them attain a state of healing and shalom. Noah might have been an alcoholic, but he was also a hero. If we recognize the fact that someone is an alcoholic and offer assistance, we help that person to achieve shleimut, "wholeness." If we realize that Noah was imperfect yet Jewish tradition upholds him as a hero, perhaps we, too, can rise above our own fallibilities to do great things. Now that is a challenge we can all accept in the New Year.
At the time of this writing in 1997, Paul Kipnes was associate rabbi and director of Education at Temple Beth Hillel, Valley Village, California.
Noach, Genesis 6:9-11:32
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 57-91; Revised Edition, pp. 57-83;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 35-58