Parshat Noach

This week’s Torah portion is Noach, which is perhaps the best known story of the Torah, especially when you consider that, according to some, there are similar stories in as many as two-hundred and seventy cultures around the world.

Jewish scholars agree (or at least most Jewish scholars agree [as it is rare to have all Jewish scholars on anything]), that the reason the Torah states that Noah was a righteous man “in his generation,” is because, while he was righteous enough to listen to G-d’s instruction, he was lacking a personal relationship with G-d, and with other people. There is no account of Noah making any attempt to warn others. He took care of himself, his family, and the animals, which is admirable. However, Abraham, who lived ten generations later, had a personal relationship with G-d, showed a great love for humanity, and fought for people.

I hope we can all be inspired to be like Noah and be righteous in our generation. I also hope that Abraham can inspire us to have a personal connection to a higher power and to all people.

What I really want to talk about is the lesser-known passage toward the end of the Torah portion, the story of the Tower of Babel. The passage (11:1) states that “Everyone on earth had the same language and the same words.” From there, as people started migrating East, “They said, Come, let us build us a city, and a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name for ourselves; else we shall be scattered all over the world.” (11:4). From there G-d confounds their language, and the tower never gets completed.

What was so terrible about wanting to build a tower? I believe that it was not so much the desire to build the tower, but it was the motivation they had. It does not seem as if they wanted to help others, to provide housing, to create jobs, etc. It was “to make a name for ourselves.” I hope this can teach us to be honest about what really motivates us. Are we doing the right things for the right reasons, or are we drawn to do things that feed our egos?

Maybe this is why they could not communicate with each other. I maintain that we can find ways to communicate with others, if we try to “speak the same language;” the language of love, connection, understanding, respect, and humility.

For me, this is a crucial time to learn from Noah, to provide for ourselves, our families, and all living things; from Abraham, to connect with the G-d that, in my faith, is a spark that we all have in us, and to connect and advocate with other people. Yet, I think we learn a lesson from the Tower of Babel that is also essential. Can we be honest with ourselves and others about what really motivates us? Are we falling into the trap of feeding our own egos? Or are we finding new ways to open dialogues with others to make the world a better place? Are we bringing people together in peace? Or are we separating ourselves from those who “don’t speak our language?” I’m not sure I have the answers, but I do think these are good questions to think about.

Rabbi Ira Rosenfeld ‘08