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Parashat Noach: The Generation of the Tower and a Towering Generation

Excerpted from Rabbi Norman Lamm’s Derashot Ledorot: A Commentary for the Ages — Genesis, co-published by OU Press, Maggid Books, and YU Press; edited by Stuart W. Halpern

Derashot Ledorot front cover

In this sidra we read of the generation of Noah and the evil lives they led. Their punishment, as it is recorded in the Torah, was complete destruction – except for Noah and his family – in the great flood. Following that episode, we read of another generation following in the footsteps of the first. This is Dor haHaflaga – the Generation of the Tower. The people of this generation had evidently failed to learn from the tragic lesson that its predecessors had been taught. They were a people marked by arrogance and haughtiness.

The Torah does not describe merely poetic myths. We have substantial corroboration of that episode from the science of archeology. We know that the Mesopotamians of about 3,600–3,800 years ago began to dwell in big cities, and to build tremendous pagan temples in them. These temples were constructed as high towers as a sign of the equality of the builders with the pagan gods they worshiped. In their writings, some of which we still have, they boast of building into the heavens, even as is recorded in the sidra. At the turn of the present century, the very tower of which the Bible speaks was discovered, in ruins, by a German archeological expedition. It was clearly an impressive and imposing structure. These tremendous towers expressed the desire of the Babylonians to imagine themselves a superior race, a “herrenvolk.” Ultimately, the cities and the towers were destroyed, and all further construction was frustrated.

If you will reread the story of the tower, you will observe the terrific sarcasm with which the Torah describes the entire episode. Just one example: the name Bavel (or Babel or Babylon) given to that place by God. This is a sarcastic pun, as the Mesopotamians themselves called their city Babel because in their language the name was derived from the words bab-ili, meaning the Gate of the God – or in the plural, bab-ilani, the Gate of the Gods (hence: Babylon). However, in Hebrew the name bavel is similar to the root b-l-l which means: confusion. So the Torah tells us that what these mortals thought was the gate to their own divinity was nothing more than the confusion of their poor minds.

And yet, despite the sarcasm, bitterness, and ridicule which the Torah heaps upon the generation of the tower, the indictment of this generation is not complete. Just compare these two generations, that of the flood and that of the tower: the generation of the flood was, with the exception of Noah and his family, completely and utterly destroyed; the generation of the tower was not destroyed at all – it was merely punished by internal dissension and great exile and dispersion. Why is it that the generation of the tower was treated with such comparative leniency despite their sins of arrogance?

Our rabbis (Genesis Rabba 38:6) gave us the answer, based upon a clue in the Bible itself. Our Torah mentions that the whole world spoke one language, meaning of course that there was unity, cooperation, friendship. And therefore, “The generation of the flood, since they were steeped in theft, lo nishtayra mehem peleita – none of them remained. But the generation of the tower, since they loved each other, there remained from them a remnant.”

There is something that can be salvaged from the generation of the tower, something of lasting and permanent value, and that is: love, friendship. What our rabbis got from this episode of the generation of the tower was that every generation can become a towering generation if it learns to love; that even if people are arrogant and Godless and criminal, they can escape heavenly wrath if they will learn to love God’s creatures. The only way of nishtayra mehem peleita, of surviving a world of coldness and treachery and mass-production and bold projects which obscure the individual, is through love.

It is told that a Jew once asked his rabbi, “Why do we say “leĥayyim” to our friends before reciting the blessing over wine or schnapps? Isn’t it disrespectful to bless our neighbor before we bless God? The rabbi answered that the practice is valid since the Torah commands us to accept the mitzva of “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18) before it tells us, “Love the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 6:5).

We frequently speak of the mitzva of neighborly love, and yet we usually fail to understand it – and therefore to practice it. The difficulty is a simple one: some people are simply unlovable. You ask me to have real affection for so-and-so? How can I, when I think he is repulsive? Or, how can I when I simply don’t approve of him and what he thinks and what he does? I am critical of so many things about him, and I refuse to surrender the right to be critical of him; it is part of a man’s rational makeup to be critical. And if I don’t approve of him and have no emotional ties to him, how can I possibly observe the commandment to love him?

That is a good question, which you have no doubt thought of, and which we must be able to answer if we will ever succeed in making of ourselves, who have so many of the faults and evil traits of the generation of the tower, a towering generation – if we are to manage to survive as decent human beings and good Jews.

A most profound and adequate answer is the one suggested by that great German Jew, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch. Hirsch makes the observation that regarding the verse, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” the Torah does not say “Ve’ahavta et reiakha,” but “lereiakha,” which is difficult to translate. But what does that actually mean? “Et reiakha” implies an emotional tie, a complete and uncritical love of your neighbor, which may be very good but is not usually possible. But “lereiakha” carries with it the meaning that you don’t have to approve of him or anything he says or wants, but what is required is empathy, meaning: put yourself in his place, so that you will participate in his feelings, in whatever happens to him – that is lereiakha; share in what happens to him. If great good fortune happens to him – be happy for him, as if it happened to you. Don’t begrudge it and don’t be indifferent. If tragedy occurs to him – share his sorrow and feel it as if it happened to you – “kamokha.” And when you can establish that identification and deeply participate in both his joys and his sorrows, then you will certainly be moved to increase the joys and alleviate the sorrows. You need agree to nothing he says and may even consider his personality faulty – but he is a human being with feelings and sensitivities, and the mitzva of neighborly love requires you to consider those feelings as if they were your own. The Torah asks nothing of us that is beyond our capabilities. It does not ask of us to be uncritical in accepting confidants or friends. It does not ask of us that we gush in sweetness over someone we loathe. It does say that no matter what our opinion of a person, we must have enough love in our souls that we feel not only for him – not only sympathy; but as if we were him – empathy.

This demand of the Torah that we practice neighborly love is not a demand to be an angel. It is a challenge to be human. Few of us find it possible to approve of any one person completely and uncritically. Few of us can form deep emotional attachments with everyone we know. But all of us were created in the image of God. And that means that we can practice neighborly love “lereiakha”; we can learn empathy, we can consider another’s feelings as if they were our very own. For that is the meaning of the Torah’s commandment – it is practicable, manly, and supremely human.

It is that and that alone which can make us the peleita, the survivors in this generation, which like the one mentioned in this sidra, is feverishly busy in building all kinds of structures and weapons and industries, and deriving therefrom the collective arrogance that makes us think we are supermen. The generation of the tower was a wicked one and therefore doomed to failure. But their one redeeming feature, love, is that which is able to make of us and every other generation a towering generation. May that be God’s will.