Last week, in parshat Bereishis, we read of God’s creation of the Universe – a story full of miracle and wonder. In six days God creates everything, and on the seventh day He gives the world the gift of rest and Shabbat.
We also read of man and his imperfections: The serpent fools Eve into thinking it is OK to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, Eve convinces Adam to eat from the tree, and they are expelled from the Garden of Eden. They have children, Cain and Abel. Cain becomes jealous of his brother Abel and kills him. Mankind becomes increasingly wicked, and God “reconsidered having made man on Earth, and He had heartfelt sadness.” People must have been really terrible for God to be sorry He created them.
This week, we read how God deals with the world when He realizes they will not reform. It happens twice. First, God brings the great Flood that covers the Earth and kills every living creature except Noah, his family, and the animals on the Ark. Then, we learn what happens when humanity decides it can “best” God by building the Tower of Babel – God does humanity one better and gives everyone a different language, so they cannot work together to build the tower any longer.
The former Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, Lord Sacks, has an interesting insight on parshat Noah, with the theme that “Righteousness is not Leadership”.
Rabbi Sacks points out that Noah was a very righteous man, “perfect in his generations.” The Sages differed on the interpretation of this phrase. Some say that even though his generation was wicked, he was strong enough to be righteous. Others say that only by comparison to the wicked people of his generation was he righteous – in the generation of Abraham, Noah would not have been considered righteous. Perhaps he was as righteous as a person could be in such a wicked world; had he lived among wonderful people like Abraham and Sarah, he might have been even more righteous. Each person’s accomplishments should be considered in light of the other people among whom he lived.
Rabbi Sacks looks beyond how good Noah was, and asks why Noah did not have an impact on the rest of humanity. Only Noah and his wife, their three sons and their daughters-in-law were worthy of being saved. For Rabbi Sacks, what was needed in Noah’s generation was not only a righteous person like Noah, but also a leader who could convince other people that their ways were wrong and they needed to repent and treat others kindly – then they would have been saved from the Flood.
Rabbi Sacks sees Noah’s failure to convince others to act righteously as a failure to take responsibility for the actions of the community. Rabbi Sacks compares this to other failures of responsibility in the first chapters of the Torah. Eve blames the serpent for deceiving her into eating of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and Adam then blames Eve for giving him the fruit of the tree to eat. Neither would take responsibility for their own actions. When Cain kills Abel, he fails to take moral responsibility, asking “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
The point of Rabbi Sacks’ d’var Torah is that each of us must take responsibility for the actions of the community, as well as our own actions. He points out that even the prophets understood that their efforts to get other people to do the right thing might not be successful, as when God tells Ezekiel that the people may not listen to him. (Ezekiel, 2:3-5). If we take responsibility to see that our generation acts correctly, we must speak up for what is right, even if our efforts may be unsuccessful.
Perhaps that is why the people of the Tower of Babel were punished as they were. At the time they were building the tower, they had discovered how to improve their lives by making bricks. They all spoke the same language and had a common purpose. Several great men lived among them – the righteous Noah, his son, Shem, who was a teacher of Torah, and Abraham. Instead of taking responsibility for the good of mankind and learning how to be kind from the moral leaders of the community, they sought glory and said “Come, let us build a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed across the whole earth.” (Genesis: 11:4) Because their lives together brought only selfishness, God split them apart, by giving them different languages, and scattering them over the face of the earth.
God had wanted all humanity to prosper by living according to the Torah, but for 2,000 years generation after generation disappointed Him. He saw that Abraham (then known as Abram) did care about other people, and decided that He would choose Abram to create a people who would live good lives. Next week we will learn about how the father of the Jewish people took responsibility for those around him.
P.S. You can read other divrei Torah by Rabbi Sacks and other Torah scholars at http://www.ou.org/torah/index#/parsha