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Torah Commentary
Noach (October 17, 2015)

Cara L. Glickman,
Vice President of Finance and Administration

PARASHAT NOACH IS A FAMILIAR STORY. When my grandfather retired from working in the insurance business, he took up carpentry as a hobby. For one of his projects, he built an ark for each pair of grandchildren from his three children, and these arks are a wooden treasure that his great-grandchildren enjoy to this day. From our youngest years, the animals going two by two into the ark, the flooding of the earth and the dove returning with an olive branch, is a wonderful tale we read in picture books or played with using figurines.

But, there is another part of this Torah portion that is not a child’s story. After the flood, the Torah tells of the many successive generations of Noah’s descendants that inhabit the earth. They are one people all speaking the same language. While not evil on its face, they build a city and a tower, hoping to reach the heavens. (Genesis 11:4) This tower is known as the “Tower of Babel” and when God takes note of this tower and he scatters the people across the earth and confuses their language so they can no longer understand each other. (Genesis 11:5-8)

The following midrash helps us to understand why God took this action.
Why was this tower so evil?

“Come, let us build us a city and a tower.” Many, many years were spent building the tower. It reached so great a height that it took a year to mount to the top. A brick was, therefore, more precious in the sight of the builders than a human being. If a man fell down and met his death, none took notice of it; but if a brick dropped, they wept, because it would take a year to replace it. So intent were they upon accomplishing their purpose that they would not permit a woman to interrupt her work of brickmaking when the hour of travail came upon her. Moulding bricks, she gave birth to her child, and tying it round her body in a sheet, she went on moulding bricks.
— Louis Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews

This parashah teaches us that the way we do things is sometimes more important than what we do. The tower builders did not care about the workers’ health or well-being. God did not approve of their methods and approach. Unlike Noah who carefully welcomed animals into the ark, the builders no longer cared about human dignity or well-being but only focused on achieving their goal through any means.

We can surmise that had the tower builders gone about their work in a humane and ethical way, that we would still speak the same language and still be able to understand each other. In a world where political parties, ethnic groups, neighbors and geopolitical forces cannot seem to work together, cannot find common ground and cannot find commonality, one is forced to wish that we still shared a common language or could work to find what unites us as humanity.

We learn in this Torah portion that all of the earth’s inhabitants are descendants of Noah. We are all related, and yet because of the ruthlessness and careless of the builders of the Tower of Babel, we no longer can remember this relationship and no longer can understand each other as we once did so long ago. The rainbow is a sign of God’s covenant with his people and sign of hope that God never will cause such a flood to come upon the earth ever again. (Genesis 9:13-15) My hope is that this sign, the rainbow, also will be a sign that reminds humanity of what we share, so deeply, as humans and that we will be able to move beyond what divides us and find a way to journey back to that which unites us.

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