Saturday, October 21, 2017

When the Flood Met the Tower

      Parshat Noah is framed by two cultural models, the generation that engendered the Flood (Dor Ha-Mabul) and that which was its result, that of the 'Tower of Babylon' (Dor Ha-Plaga). Both are condemned by the Torah, and excluded from the World to Come by the Mishnah (M. Sanhedrin 10, 3).

       What was the sin of the Generation of the Flood? The Torah, cryptically, states:

 וַתִּשָּׁחֵ֥ת הָאָ֖רֶץ לִפְנֵ֣י הָֽאֱ-לֹהִ֑ים וַתִּמָּלֵ֥א הָאָ֖רֶץ חָמָֽס:  וַיַּ֧רְא אֱלֹהִ֛ים אֶת־הָאָ֖רֶץ וְהִנֵּ֣ה נִשְׁחָ֑תָה כִּֽי־הִשְׁחִ֧ית כָּל־בָּשָׂ֛ר אֶת־דַּרְכּ֖וֹ עַל־הָאָֽרֶץ:  וַיֹּ֨אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֜ים לְנֹ֗חַ קֵ֤ץ כָּל־בָּשָׂר֙ בָּ֣א לְפָנַ֔י כִּֽי־מָלְאָ֥ה הָאָ֛רֶץ חָמָ֖ס מִפְּנֵיהֶ֑ם וְהִנְנִ֥י מַשְׁחִיתָ֖ם אֶת־הָאָֽרֶץ(בראשית ו, יא-יג:) 

And the earth was corrupt before G-d, and the earth was filled with violence. And G-d saw the earth, and, behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted their way upon the earth:

  • And G-d said unto Noah: 'The end of all flesh is come before Me; for the earth is filled with violence through them; and, behold, I will destroy them with the earth.(Gen. 6, 11-13) 

  • What was the sin of the Dor Ha-Mabul? The Torah doesn't say. Hazal, echoed by Rashi, were quite clear on the subject:

    רש"י, פסוק יא:
    ותשחת - לשון ערוהח ועבודה זרה, כמו (דברים ד טז) פן תשחיתון, כי השחית כל בשר וגו'
    ותמלא הארץ חמס- גזל
    Was corrupt:  וַתִּשָּׁחֵת is an expression of immorality and idolatry.
    And the earth became full of  חָמָס: robbery.

    According to Hazal, Dor HaMabul was a society the was characterized by a moral melt down and anarchy. It was corrupted by Idolatry and Sexual Immorality. These two, actually, go together. For, idolatrous society is typically self-serving, fundamentally hedonistic and inevitably orgiastic. It's supreme aim was focused upon obtaining personal, individual happiness. With man and his desires at the center of all considerations, it was inevitable that boundaries began to dissolve under the pressure of self-gratification. All societal lines, sexual, familial and more, were viewed as an obstacle to personal happiness. Robbery and theft, then, were the inevitable result of this societal behavior. If boundaries are rejected in the interest of self-gratification, of what use or importance are rights to private property?

    The Dor HaPlaga, that which built the tower, was of another order (pun intended). 
     וַיֹּאמְר֞וּ אִ֣ישׁ אֶל־רֵעֵ֗הוּ הָ֚בָה נִלְבְּנָ֣ה לְבֵנִ֔ים וְנִשְׂרְפָ֖ה לִשְׂרֵפָ֑ה וַתְּהִ֨י לָהֶ֤ם הַלְּבֵנָה֙ לְאָ֔בֶן וְהַ֣חֵמָ֔ר הָיָ֥ה לָהֶ֖ם לַחֹֽמֶר:וַיֹּאמְר֞וּ הָ֣בָה׀ נִבְנֶה־לָּ֣נוּ עִ֗יר וּמִגְדָּל֙ וְרֹאשׁ֣וֹ בַשָּׁמַ֔יִם וְנַֽעֲשֶׂה־לָּ֖נוּ שֵׁ֑ם פֶּן־נָפ֖וּץ עַל־פְּנֵ֥י כָל־ הָאָֽרֶץ: וַיֵּ֣רֶד ה֔' לִרְאֹ֥ת אֶת־הָעִ֖יר וְאֶת־הַמִּגְדָּ֑ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר בָּנ֖וּ בְּנֵ֥י הָאָדָֽם: וַיֹּ֣אמֶר ה֗' הֵ֣ן עַ֤ם אֶחָד֙ וְשָׂפָ֤ה אַחַת֙ לְכֻלָּ֔ם וְזֶ֖ה הַחִלָּ֣ם לַעֲשׂ֑וֹת וְעַתָּה֙ לֹֽא־יִבָּצֵ֣ר מֵהֶ֔ם כֹּ֛ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר יָזְמ֖וּ לַֽעֲשֽׂוֹת  :(בראשית פרק יא ג-ו)
  • And they said one to another: 'Come, let us make brick, and burn them thoroughly.' And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for mortar. And they said: 'Come, let us build us a city, and a tower, with its top in heaven, and let us make us a name; lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.' And God came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded.And God said: 'Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is what they begin to do; and now nothing will be withholden from them, which they purpose to do. (Gen. 11, 3-6). 
  • Those who built the tower, perhaps as in reaction to the sins of the Dor HaMabul, valued unity and uniformity above all. Everyone spoke the same language, thought the same thought and subscribed to the same rational, architectonic vision of a society that was embodied in and expressed by the Tower. All was subordinated to the common goal of building the tower and establishing societal dominion over the earth, and the implied usurpation of God's dominion (with its top in heaven, and let us make us a name). In contrast to the Dor HaMabul, though, the individual in this generation was stripped of all value. His or her status was measured solely to the degree that they were useful to the common mind-set and cause. In a famous comment, the author of Pirqe de-Rabbi Eliezer, observed:

  • פרקי דרבי אליעזר (היגר) - "חורב" פרק כד
    כשבעה מילין מקנה מעלת היו לו במזרחו ובמערבו, ואלו שהיו מעלו מעלין לבנים היו עולין ממזרחו, ואלו שהיו יורדין היו יורדין ממערבו, ואם נפל אדם ומת לא היו שמים לבם עליו, ואם נפלה לבנה היו יושבין ובוכין ואומרין מתי תעלה אחרת תחתיה, 
  • There were seven staircases on its eastern and western sides. Those who were bringing up bricks, would ascend from the east and those who were descending would go down from the west. If a man fell and died, they would pay him no heed. If a brick fell, they would sit and cry and say: When will another [brick] come up to replace it. (Pirqe de-Rabbi Eliezer, ed. M. Higger, ch. 24)

    The builders of the Tower, then, created a disciplined, totalitarian society in which the common good paid no heed to the individual, the moment he no longer participated in the actualization of the common vision of society, as focused and expressed by the Tower. As made clear by the Torah, this type of society is dependent upon mind-control and uniformity of thought in order to succeed. And, it was precisely that kind of totalitarianism that led to the scattering of the people and the breaking of its dehumanizing uniformity.
    Prima facie, these two extremes represent polar opposites. The society the preceded the flood was self-indulgent, narcissistic and valued the satisfaction of its drives and needs and happiness above all other considerations. It strove to destroy boundaries and create a world of natural freedom. The world of the Tower, while equally self-centered, was predicated upon the pursuit of a higher ideal through tightly regimented thought and action. It was disciplined to a fault and (by implication) Hobbesian in its view of humanity and its prospects, hence the regimentation (governmental?). 
    The Torah makes it patently clear that both societal models are to be utterly condemned. Each may contain positive elements such as the value of the individual or that of sacrifice for common goals. These, however, must balance one another and cannot become absolute values. Furthermore, and far more important, each is a nefarious form of Alien Worship, Avodah Zarah--- the absolute opposite of all for which the Torah stands. The proper definition of Avodah Zarah is the worship as God, of someone or something, which is not, in fact, God. Both the generation of the Flood and of the Tower, each in its own way, worshiped man, and reject the subordination of Humanity to its Creator: either as a subjective individual or as an unyielding, absolute ideal.
    Despite the Flood and the Destruction of the Tower of Babylon, both approaches have never disappeared. Hellenistic Society, and Post-Modern Western Society, very much embodied (bon mot intended) the patterns of the former. Totalitarian systems (Communism, Nazism, and Fascism) perfectly fit the pattern of the Tower Builders. Today, however, I sense that a new phenomenon is upon us: a merging of the two. Western 'culture' (certainly in the area of personal identity, sexual morality, family structure etc) while, apparently rooted in the ethos of the Flood generation, increasingly and aggressively uses the coercive tools of the Tower Builders to force its world view on all who might disagree. I am, personally, not quite sure what to make of this development. I do think it's very ominous and potentially disastrous.
    The above Midrash recounts that the young Abraham watched the tower abuilding. He was revolted by all it represented. He, cursed it and prayed to God to break up their unity/uniformity. The builders, for their part, ignored him as if he were a rock thrown on the ground. However, it was only Abraham and his Progeny, in their acknowledgement of God's Dominion (and, by implication, submission to His Word), that the anathema of the Tower could be undone. a fortiori is that true when Flood and Tower are merged.
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