Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

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Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Walk Article



Rabbi David Walk 


In 1961, the winner of the Tony for best Broadway musical was How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. It was revived (twice), made into a movie and adapted for television. The faces and sets changed. The one thing which remained the same was the self-serving cynical, attitude of the leading man, J Pierrepont Finch, who rises from window washer to titan of industry. But he does sing one truly uplifting set of lyrics, 'There is a brotherhood of man, A benevolent brotherhood of man, A noble tie that binds, All human hearts and minds into one brotherhood of man.' This anthem to empathy is his expression of repentance for all his previous underhanded shenanigans. It's a catchy tune, but is its message of human unity true? Let's look at this week's Torah reading to find out. 

Parshat Noach is always a challenge, because we're not sure how to relate to its hero. Noach is an enigma to the rabbis, and, apparently to Hollywood, if you saw Russell Crowe in the role you'll understand. Steve Carell was better. Rashi famously records our Sages ambivalence: Some Sages interpret his righteousness favorably...and others interpret it derogatorily (Breishit 6:9). Does Noach belong in the pantheon of Bible heroes? Jury's still out after all these years. It's possible that some scholars arrived at their verdict based on certain ethnocentric considerations. After all we're called the descendants of Avraham, while the rest of mankind are called B'NEI NOACH. Is the negativity surrounding Noach a direct result of his not being the founder of our clan? I don't think so, but it will take a while to develop the idea. 

   There are two major sin scenarios in our parsha, the Flood and the Tower of Babel. What's the difference between the generation of the Flood and that of the Tower of Babel? The simplest answer is that the generation of the Tower survived. They may have been exiled, but at least they lived. Why? Normal Torah logic would dictate another outcome. Afterall, what was the sin of the generation of the Flood? CHAMAS, which we translate as violence, but it seems to suggest armed robbery. But what about the people of the Tower? According to most rabbinic interpretations, they were rebelling against God. Perhaps, even picking a fight with the Creator. That's curious, because normally the punishment for idolatry or blasphemy is more severe than for robbery. What merit did the people of Mesopotamia have which Noach's generation lacked? In a word: unity. 

It's recorded in Midrash Raba: However, these people from the Generation of the Dispersion (DOR HAFLAGA) loved one another, as it says, 'And it was that the entire world was of one language and one set of words (Bresishit 11:1)', therefore a major portion of them survived. Rebbe said that great is peace (SHALOM, perhaps 'togetherness' in this context) because even if the Jews worship idols but there is Shalom amongst them it's almost as if (KAVIYACHOL) God can't rule over them, as it says, 'Efraim is addicted to idols, but let him (HANACH) be (Hoshea 4:17).' From here we can learn that great is Shalom and hated is disunity (Breishit Raba 38:6). 

The generation of the flood was everyone for themselves. While the generation of the Tower was 'all for one and one for all', even though their goal was reprehensible. 

Noach was a victim of his times. The weltanschauung overwhelmed him. The concept of joining with others and influencing them was totally alien to him. There was no template for cooperation. He's criticized for being a ZADIK IM PELTZ (a righteous man in a fur coat and not sharing the warmth), because he made no effort to disseminate his ethics to others, but without a tradition of community there was no chance of Noach becoming a Chabad Shaliach. 

After the Flood, a lightbulb (I guess in those days it was a candle.) went on in the minds of people. 'We're in this together,' they began to think. The Flood was an equal opportunity destroyer. They concluded that there must be cooperation or this kind of disaster could happen again. Actually, Rashi quotes a Midrash that the purpose of the Tower was to hold together the heavens and prevent another Flood. Shades of Isaac Asimov's great science fiction tale Nightfall, that the Flood would be a recurring catastrophe. Cooperation and unity seemed a necessity. 

There was one observer who put the spiritual morality of Noach together with the sense of community of the generation of the Tower. According to the dating system of the verses in Breishit, this young man was 39 years old when Noach died, and 48 when the people were dispersed from the Tower. And, of course, I'm referring to Avraham. Our Alter Zeidie was the one who combined righteousness with the sense of human unity, and spread ethical monotheism far and wide. Of course, Avraham was ultimately greater than Noach, but he had the advantage of knowing Noach and experiencing the dispersion. 

In our era the world is shrinking at an alarming rate. The results of human behavior patterns affect other continents and hemispheres at frightening speed. An oil spill or reactor meltdown is not a local event. The food we eat, the air we breathe, the water we drink are global concerns. I'd like to believe that we children of Avraham, especially in Israel, add more to solutions than to problems, like with desalination, drip irrigation, solar power, and afforestation. But we need the global village.  

As J Pierrepont Finch sang, 'Your life long membership is free, Keep a-giving each brother all you can. Oh, aren't you proud to be in that fraternity, The great big brotherhood of man?' If we don't join the brotherhood, there may not be a fraternity much longer. We must learn from Avraham to be righteous on a global scale, or we may closer to the Flood than any shining Tower.