Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s Unlocking the Torah Text – Bereishit, co-published by OU Press and Gefen Publishers
In Parshat Noach two doomed societies are presented for our attention: the generation of the flood and the generation of dispersion (the Tower of Bavel).
In response to sin, God destroys the first of these generations through a flood which encompasses the entire world. The only survivors are Noach, his family and the animals that Noach, upon God’s command, brings into the ark.
The second generation is punished through divinely decreed linguistic confusion. In response to the building of the Tower of Bavel, God creates a myriad of languages. The builders of the tower, unable to communicate with each other, disperse across the face of the earth.
How are we to understand the concept of trial and error as applied to God’s creation of the world? Why did a perfect God create two societies that He then felt compelled to destroy?
The Torah states that, upon seeing the evil of the generation of the flood, “God regretted that He had created man in the land, and He was saddened unto His heart.” How could God regret the creation of man when He knew from the outset that man was destined to sin?
The Torah cites violent theft as the crime that seals the fate of the generation of the flood. The sin of the generation of dispersion, however, is not clearly defined in the text. What was wrong with building the Tower of Bavel?
Why did God feel compelled to destroy this second society, as well? Why did the punishment of the two generations differ and how did the “punishment fit the crime” in each case?
As a first step, we must understand that the “trial and error” implicit in the stories of the flood and the Tower of Bavel does not exist on God’s part but on man’s.
God creates a world based upon free will, and the existence of free will is predicated on the possibility of human failure. God knows from the very beginning that man will sin, but He does not interfere. He, instead, retreats to allow man room to succeed or fail on his own.
As indicated in our earlier discussion concerning prescience, predestination and free will (see Bereishit 4, Approaches a), God’s knowledge of the future does not affect man’s ability to choose.
God’s regret upon the occasion of man’s failure at the time of the flood is explained in a famous conversation between Rabbi Yehoshua the son of Korcha and an Epicurean.
The Epicurean questioned how God could possibly regret a tragedy that He knew was bound to occur.
Rabbi Yehoshua responded by asking, “Did you ever have a child and, if so, did you celebrate his birth?”
“Of course! I rejoiced and encouraged others to rejoice!” answered his adversary.
“How could you celebrate the child’s birth?” asked Rabbi Yehoshua. “Did you not know that he would eventually die?”
“So, too,” continued Rabbi Yehoshua, “God celebrated the creation of man in its time and mourned the pain of man’s failure in its time.”
Granted free will, civilization, in its infancy, stumbles and falls. The Torah apparently details the initial tragic missteps of man in order to ensure that we learn from the errors of the two earliest societies whose story it records.
What societal lesson, then, is the Torah conveying through the contrasting stories of the generation of the flood and the generation of the Tower of Bavel?
The answer lies in a clearer understanding of the failure of each of these two civilizations.
While the generation of the flood was, according to tradition, guilty of a multitude of heinous crimes, the sin that actually sealed the fate of that society was hamas, violent theft.
It remains, however, for the rabbis in the Talmud to fully describe the nature of the theft that characterized the generation of the flood.
“Rav Acha asked, ‘What did they steal? A merchant would walk through the marketplace with a container filled with grapes and each passerby would reach forth and steal a small amount, less than he could be called to judgment for.’”
From the rabbinic perspective, the sin of the generation of the flood lay in their mocking of societal norms and laws. Driven by personal greed, each individual steals from his neighbor. He does so in such a way, however, as to escape the reach of the law. By the time the merchant reaches the end of the marketplace he has no grapes left. No one, however, can be taken to court. Societal rules have been rendered ineffective in the face of personal greed.
The sin of the generation of the Tower of Bavel, in contrast, is more difficult to ascertain. As indicated earlier, the Torah does not clearly delineate the crime of this generation.
To fill the gaps in the story of the generation of dispersion, a variety of approaches are offered within rabbinic literature. Many suggest that the tower was built as a direct attack upon God’s authority. Others maintain that the sin of this generation lay in their attempt to stay together in one place as one people instead of populating the world in fulfillment of God’s command. Yet others suggest that the people of the time were simply trying to protect themselves from a calamity similar to the flood of Noach’s era. According to this interpretation, the builders of the tower ignored the moral lessons of the flood (see Bereishit 3, Approaches d2).
Among all of the approaches offered, however, one specific Midrashic interpretation is particularly telling. The Midrash describes the following scene: “Seven levels were created to the tower from the East and seven to the West. The bricks would be brought up from one direction while the descent was from the other. If a man fell down and died during the process of construction, no attention was paid to him at all. If one brick fell, however, all would sit down and weep: ‘Woe to us! When will we find another to take its place?’”
This Midrash (clearly based upon hints in the text which describe the driving force behind the creation of the tower as the desire to create a societal name) details a frightening civilization in which communal need takes total precedence over individual value. Those working on the Tower of Bavel cared not at all about the lives of their neighbors. All that mattered was the creation of the tower and the society that it represented.
In the eyes of the rabbis, the two civilizations described in Parshat Noach reflected polar extremes. The society of Noach’s time was characterized by individual greed at the expense of communal structure. The generation of dispersion, on the other hand, was willing to sacrifice individual life to the creation of society.
The ultimate punishments inflicted by God upon each of these generations perfectly fit their crimes. The generation of Noach, which was marked by individual greed and corruption, could only be addressed through total destruction. None of the individuals, other than Noach and his family, could remain. When it came to the builders of the Tower of Bavel, however the problem was with the society, not the individuals. In this case, therefore, only the society is destroyed.
In each era, man struggles to strike a balance between two opposing forces: the needs of the individual and the needs of the community. Each of these forces, by definition, impinges upon the other.
In order to create and maintain the rules necessary for communal governance, a society must, of necessity, place limits upon personal freedoms (you cannot, to cite the well-known example, allow someone to yell fire in a crowded theater with impunity). On the other hand, a society must limit the restrictions it places upon its citizens in order to allow for individual freedom of expression and action.
The particular balance that a society creates between these two forces determines the very nature of the society itself. The difference between Communist Russia and the United States of America lay in the vastly different ways these two societies chose to strike this very balance.
Far from fairy tales, the two major narratives found in Parshat Noach inform us concerning the development of our race. At the dawn of history, two generations fail in their attempts to create an equilibrium between individual and community, with the failures occurring at opposite ends of the spectrum.
The cautionary tales of Parshat Noach remind us of the difficult task that confronts any society as it attempts to address these potentially conflicting needs. Only those civilizations which succeed will eventually endure.
How appropriate that Parshat Noach ends with the introduction of Avraham Avinu and with the launching of Jewish history.
In the aftermath of the failures of both the generations of the flood and dispersion, a new society emerges: one that will successfully create a delicate balance between the needs of the community and the needs of the individual. This society, the Jewish nation guided by its Torah, is therefore destined to endure across the ages.