Why include the story of Migdal Bavel, the Tower of Babel, in the Torah? It serves as more than a mere a history lesson explaining mankind’s spreading out across the world. It is an introduction to Avraham and a coda for Noach while providing an interesting gloss on Rashi’s comment to the first verse of the parsha.
Although the Torah is frugal in relating the sin connected to Migdal Bavel, the midrashim are expansive. Some suggest that the Generation of the Dispersion believed the Great Flood was a recurring natural event. To prevent another they sought to build a tower to shore up heaven. Others suggest the tower was a way to escape future floodwaters. This is in contrast to the idea that they wanted to ascend to access the waters of heaven and not rely on Divine forces for rain. Still others suggest the generation wanted to inhabit heaven, considering it unfair that they were excluded. Another explanation is that they simply sought to remain together in defiance of the Divine intent for mankind to spread out over the world. An important aspect of the story is their decision to build the tower in an area devoid of natural building resources. They sought to construct the tower not of stone, but of human-made materials. The tower was to be a triumph over nature, the tower was to be a triumph over Hashem, Who was to be eliminated.
Indeed, we are told that the Generation of the Dispersion no longer knew of Hashem as the ruler of the universe. They worshiped natural wonders and the forces of nature. They believed the universe’s Creator no longer concerned Himself with the world but relinquished control to intermediaries such as the sun, the moon, the stars, etc. To a certain extent, the object of their idolatry was their own strength and creativity. They did not need stones to build the tower; they would use bricks. They would no longer be subject to natural forces but would attempt to prevent floods, control rain, and organize the world according to their own design. (Not unlike some people today.) It is in this world that we find Avraham.
Avraham is 48 years old at the time of Migdal Bavel and already preaching of Hashem as the sole ruler of the universe. It is, however, shocking that this idea was considered new, unique and heretical. Only 340 years had passed since the Flood, yet Hashem had already been erased from mankind’s consciousness. How could this have happened? This question is particularly poignant given that both Noach, with whom Hashem spoke, and Shem were still alive. How then could knowledge of Hashem have disappeared from the world only to be rediscovered by Avraham?
The answer lies in Noach’s character.
The parsha’s haftarah attributes the flood to Noach. The commentaries explain this is because Noach failed to admonish or to pray for his generation. He worked to save himself and his family but not others. When the time comes to look for dry land, rather than send a clean bird, of which there were seven pairs of each kind, he first sends an “unclean” bird. Of unclean animals there are only two of a kind. If that bird was lost, the species would be extinct. Noach did not seem to care. When he finally exits the ark, Noach’s first act is to plant a vineyard and get drunk. Noach seems unconcerned with others.
Noach’s demonstrated character traits help us understand the rise of the Generation of the Dispersion. It is reasonable to assume that as Noach’s descendants began to forget Hashem and engage in strange worship, Noach sat by and did nothing. Shem’s seeming inaction can be excused and attributed to Noach. If Noach, who had enjoyed direct communication with Hashem, did nothing, who was Shem to rise up and act critically of his parent? In a similar manner, a midrash states that Yitzchak knew, but did not disclose to Yaakov, Yosef’s whereabouts, since Hashem had not revealed it to Yaakov. Noach, however, had no such justification. His inaction was of his own choosing and in sharp contrast to Avraham. Avraham “discovered” Hashem and then, at the risk of his own life, preached of Hashem’s existence. Avraham would come to pray for the sinful cities of Sodom. Avraham consistently showed concern for his fellows. Given that Avraham and Noach were contemporaries, Rashi’s opening comments become so much more poignant.
On the verse declaring that Noach was righteous in his generation, Rashi notes the derogatory opinion that this righteousness was only in comparison to his generation, but had he lived in Avraham’s generation he would have gone unnoticed, he would not have been considered anything. (“ואלו היה בדורו של אברהם לא היה נחשב לכלום”) Of course, Noach and Avraham lived at the same time. Avraham was born 1948 years after creation and Noach did not die until 2006 years after creation. Perhaps Rashi is politely informing us that Noach did nothing to keep his generation on the correct path. Indeed, Rashi’s comment can be read in two ways. Although Noach was alive alongside Avraham, Noach was not “in,” or concerned with, his generation. Avraham was “in” that generation and sought to better it. Noach was dead to that generation and that generation was dead to him. The other way to read the comment is to say that because Noach did nothing for that generation, he went unnoticed and was considered as nothing.
Are we going to be similar to the Generation of the Dispersion, worshiping and idolizing our own achievements? Are we going to be similar to Noach, non-entities, breathing while not living, keeping the knowledge of Hashem to ourselves? Or are we going to emulate Avraham, be active in the world, spreading knowledge of Hashem through acts of kindness and concern for our fellows? Will we isolate ourselves as Noach on the ark or go forth as Avraham? Will our towering achievement tumble down before us or endure like Avraham’s name and legacies?
William S.J. Fraenkel received a bachelor of arts in religion and a law degree from NYU and served as a board member and officer of several Orthodox shuls. The opinions expressed in this dvar Torah are solely his own.