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Too Big, It Must Fail

Too Big, It Must Fail

Toughts on Parashat Noah

This week’s parasha contains two great narratives that are at the foundations of the Judeo-Christian civilization and have inspired people for centuries: the story of Noah and the flood as well as the story of the Tower of Babel. The beginning of the story of Noah tells us about the great corruption that permeated the earth. To quote the Torah:
God saw how corrupt the earth was, for all flesh had corrupted its ways on earth (Gen 6:12)
The Hebrew word nishkhata (from the root shakhat), translated as corrupted, bears also other synonymous meanings like: to be marred, be spoiled, be injured, be ruined or to be rotted. The previous verse:
The earth became corrupt before God; the earth was filled with lawlessness. (Gen 6:11)
uses the Hebrew word hamas which also means violence, cruelty, injustice. According to this narrative, the only remedy for this terrible state of affairs on earth was to clean up this ‘horrible uncleanness’ with the greatest water the planet earth had ever seen. Thus we have corruption and renewal of life, a brutal renewal. Humanity has been decimated, no wonder then that in another story, in the same parasha we read that:
Everyone on earth had the same language and the same words. (Gen 11:1)
The Hebrew word sapha (language) has also other meanings such as: rim, border, binding and they are actually primary, not secondary meanings of this word.1 Given that, we can rightly assume that after this great purgatory event not only languages but also human beliefs, value systems did not manage to diversify yet. It provides us with a slightly different (and deeper, in my opinion) perspective on the story known to us as “about the confusion of languages” in which the aspect of simple, everyday and practical communication goes to the background. According to this reading of the story, this joint human venture was not accomplished not only because humanity lost a common language, but rather, a common ground: common values and goals, which diversified during the construction of the Tower of Babel. This venture also does not have to be understood in a negative way. According to rabbi Jonathan Eibeschuetz, who lived in 18th-century Prague (and was considered ‘a heretic rabbi’, because of promoting universal brotherhood and gender equality) the goal of the venture was to reach the moon. In his work Tifferet Yehonatan, Rabbi Eibeschuetz writes:
“… their reasoning was wholly scientific: All rain is the effect of gases and vapors, the watery element, rising from the earth. Thus are clouds formed; thus does water rain down. From heaven itself no water can fall. They calculated from observation that the clouds, which are the thick vapors that rise from the earth, go no higher than five miles at the very most. It necessarily follows that the more delicate vapors composed of water particles can go no higher than this. If they did, the thicker clouds would also be found at the higher altitudes. Hence their plan was to build a tower higher than those clouds, a place where rain could never again fall upon them.”
And thus no more Floods. No more need to behave themselves. According to rabbi Eibeschuetz, people of that generation also saw the moon as a sphere no less inhabitable than the terrestrial globe. They believed that they could reach and inhabit the moon by building a ship that could “float in the air” lifted up with a huge sail because it seemed to them that ultimately all the winds ascend from the earth in an upward direction. But their plan, of course, failed. They lost their ‘common language’ in the deeper meaning of this word, as I suggested above. This is a problem that humanity has never stopped struggling with and this seems to be particularly evident to us today. Our western societies are torn apart ideologically. They are tormented by the incoherence and incompatibility of professed value systems and visions of the world. What is important, the lines of all these divisions do not run along national, cultural or religious borders, but basically divide all of these groups. Therefore, multiculturalism is possible to be permanent, but it must be built on common foundations, namely values professed by all the peoples. Do such common values exist? Yes of course. The belief that they don’t is due to the excessive ideologization of our lives. When we focus on practice, it turns out that it is not difficult to find them. These values, which I think we would all agree, include respect for others, being honest, responsible, grateful, understanding, compassionate, loving. These are the first that come to my mind, I believe that this list is much longer. It is worth to reject gigantism, utopias, maximalism and all systemic visions of “salvation of the world that will come if only the rest of humanity will listen to us and do as we believe is right,” because we are either the smartest of all people and have remedies for all problems, or a mandate from God Himself, whose envoys on earth we are. This approach is doomed to failure, because we will never gain everyone’s support for our visions. Even if anyone ever succeeds in it, it won’t be permanent. By believing in similar utopias, we condemn ourselves to eternal frustration and overlook a lot of everyday life. Everything good that humanity has achieved so far has its source in mutual understanding and cooperation starting from the most basic level – the level of everyday, practical life. And the fact that we are where we are and we do not believe that we can fly to the moon by the ship with a big sail proves that our mutual cooperation has been pretty good so far, despite the eternal, ideological differences between us. Shabbat shalom!

Menachem Mirski

According to the Marcus Jastrow Dictionary of The Targumim, The Talmud Babli and Yerushalmi and The Midrashic Literature.


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