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Torah Commentary
Noach (October 20, 2012)

Rachel Brumberg, Associate Director of Lifelong Learning

THIS WEEK’S TORAH PORTION contains two well-known biblical narratives: the story of Noah building the ark (Genesis 6:13-7:5) and the construction of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9).

In the first story, God sees that humans are corrupt and decides to destroy the Earth and its inhabitants by means of a flood. However, because God finds favor with Noah, God instructs him to build an ark so that Noah, his family and two of every living species can survive and replenish the Earth after the flood. God gives Noah very specific guidelines for building this ark: the exact dimensions to build and the materials he should use. God also is very clear about his intentions: the reason for causing the flood and what the goal is after the world, as they know it, has been erased. Noah accepts his task and carries out God’s instructions without question. When it is time, Noah, his family and the animals float around the world in the ark until the rains end, a rainbow appears and a new world rid of evil is ready to be established. Noah’s actions are rewarded with survival and his becoming the father of all future generations.

Sometime later, after the waters recede and the Earth again is populated, we arrive at our next story about building. Here, at the end of the parashah, the people decide that they want to leave their mark on the world by building a city with a tall tower reaching into heaven as a reminder of their own greatness and as a way to ensure that they will remain together as one people on this specific land. They teach themselves how to make the necessary materials, and when God sees what they are doing, God knows that there is no limit as to what humans can accomplish when they work together (a reality facilitated by the fact that, post-flood, all of the Earth’s inhabitants are of one nation and speak the same language). To make things difficult, and to ensure that humans cannot have such power in the future, God interferes by changing the languages that they speak and scattering the people around the world. The city becomes known as Babel to reflect this confusion.

Two stories about “building” with seemingly different messages and outcomes… In the Noah story, unequivocally following God’s orders means life for Noah, his family and future generations of humans and animals. In the Babel story, God determines that humans’ freedom to make decisions on their own is a threat to God’s authority. God’s response is to use the people’s motivation for building the city in the first place (so that they will not be dispersed) as the punishment (changing languages and a spreading them out all over the world).

So what can we learn from studying these two narratives, side by side? First, let’s look at the motives for creating these structures. Noah’s motive is to serve God; Noah would not have built an ark if God hadn’t told him to do so. The people of Babel’s motive is to serve themselves; they do not consult God in their decision to establish a new city with a tall tower. Each case has consequences but very different results. Noah knows that the world in which he lives is going to be destroyed, but he also knows that he is part of God’s vision for the future. The people of Babel build to keep things the same and, yet, end up in a completely changed world. They do not take into account how God might react to them building a structure that challenges God’s authority. Proving their strength gets them exactly what they are trying to avoid.

However, if we look at these “building” stories together in the context of our Torah portion, they become more similar. They are both stories that start with God becoming angered by the ill will of humans and end with punishment and the need to start over again. And while the Noah story seems more hopeful because it ends with a rainbow and the promise of goodness, when we learn that in a short time humans once again will anger God to the point of punishment, I find that I am left with a dismal outlook on the world and the overall nature of humans. Ultimately what I can take away from these stories is the importance of understanding the effect that actions have.

As we look at the things we are responsible for building in our own lives, it is important for us to understand our actions and take ownership of our decisions. How do we know what to do? Do we follow another’s orders, or do we determine our path on our own? Who will be affected? What are our motives? And, most important, are our own creations deserving of reward or punishment?

Join the conversation and post your thoughts.

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