And they said: Let us build for us a city and a tower – its top in the heavens – and we will make a name for ourselves lest we be dispersed over the face of the land…
And Hashem dispersed them from there over the face of the land and they discontinued the building of the city. (Sefer Beresheit 11:4-8)
1. They mystery of the Haflagah: What was the generation’s sin?
Parshat Noach focuses on two events – the Deluge and the Dispersion. The Torah’s account of the Mabul – the Deluge – begins in Parshat Beresheit. The Torah describes the generation that was destroyed by the Mabul as corrupt. However, no specific details of their sins are provided. Our Sages identify three behaviors that led to the generation’s destruction – idolatry, the abandonment of all sexual restrictions and gezel—violent theft.
Even less detail is provided regarding the sins of the generation of the Haflagah – the Dispersion. In fact, the Torah’s description of this generation focuses on the generation’s accomplishments. The Torah tells us that this generation – composed of Noach’s descendants – shared a common language and culture. Their objective was to create a community in which they would live together as a single people. Hashem decided to disrupt this grand plan and to foment dissention and conflict within this peaceful society. The resultant strife destroyed the unity that humanity had achieved. Disparate perspectives and cultures developed and humanity was transformed from a single community with a common land into a diverse family of nations spread over various lands. What was the sin of this generation? Why did Hashem undermine their designs to create a single, unified community of humankind?
2. The generation of the Haflagah rebelled against Hashem
Our Sages differ in their responses to this question. Rashi suggests that the generation of the Dispersion did rebel against Hashem and challenged His authority over humanity. Midrash Rabbah suggests that this generation’s rebellion against Hashem was more intense and visceral than even the rebellion of the generation of the Mabul. Yet, despite the seriousness of its sin, the generation of the Haflagah was spared destruction. Instead, it received the relatively mild consequence of dispersion. Why was the generation of the Dispersion spared?
And G-d said to Noach: The end of all flesh has come before Me because the entire land is full of violence before them. I will destroy them with the land. (Sefer Beresheit 6:13)
And all the land (shared) a single common language and common counsel. (Sefer Beresheit 11:1)
3. The unity of the generation of the Haflagah
There are many factors that our Sages identify that can explain the different consequences experienced by these two generations of idolators. One of the best known distinctions is cited by Midrash Rabbah. Midrash Rabbah explains that although the Haflagah generation’s rebellion against Hashem was even more intense than that of the Mabul generation, in another respect these two generations represented complete opposites.
The distinction between the two generations is reflected in the above passages. In the first passage, Hashem announces to Noach that He will destroy humanity. He reveals to Noach the reason He has condemned humanity. He does not cite the sin of idolatry or even sexual immorality and perversion. Instead, Hashem reveals that humanity was condemned because of its violence. In other words, humanity was not condemned because of its heresy, or its sexual degeneracy, but in response to its members’ inhumanity toward one another. In contrast, the second passage describes the generation of the Haflagah as unified. The members of this society lived with one another in perfect harmony.
4. The Torah’s focus on the individual
The Midrash’s seem to express a humanistic perspective that places more value upon our treatment of one another than upon individual moral, and spiritual excellence. This outlook is very popular in “enlightened” societies. However, it is not consistent with the Torah’s general perspective. The Torah consistently emphasizes the advancement of the individual. Nearly all of the most important performances and goals specified by the Torah are achievements of the individual. Maimonides’ thirteen principles of faith are convictions that must be embraced by the individual. Prayer – although, best conducted in the context of a minyan – is essentially a personal communion with Hashem. In fact, most mitzvot are obligations or prohibitions directed to the individual.
Both the generation of the Deluge and of the Dispersion failed in the most fundamental manner in terms of individual achievement. In both generations the people were idolators. As Maimonides explains, there is no more fundamental failing than rejection of Hashem and the adoption of idolatry. By this measure the two generations were identical. In fact, the unity of the generation of the Dispersion was used as a means to spread the falsehood of idolatry, encourage conformity to this perversion and to suppress any criticism or skepticism regarding the dominant religious outlook!
5. The role of community in the Torah
Maimonides explains in his Laws of Repentance that just as individuals are required to repent from sinful or improper behavior, so too communities are required to examine their behaviors and repent from community failings. What is a community failing and what is community repentance? How does this differ from an individual’s sin and repentance? In other words, if as individuals, we inspect and critique our personal behavior and in response to this process we each undertake a process of repentance, what is missing? What is added by community repentance that is absent from the repentance of the individual?
It seems that although the Torah emphasizes the individual and individual advancement, many aspects of individual advancement are impossible without the support of the community. Every individual – regardless of his independence and self-sufficiency – must ultimately rely on the support of the community. A community – whether it is a city, state, nation or synagogue – provides its individual members with the infrastructure each requires to support personal spiritual growth.
How effective would our efforts to grow as individuals be without roads on which to travel, hospitals in which to be treated when ill, synagogues to support our religious endeavors and schools to educate our children. No individual – even the most wealthy or powerful – can advance his personal spiritual mission without the support of a community. Therefore, without an effective community there can be little individual advancement.
This is Maimonides’ message. We are responsible to evaluate ourselves both as individuals and as members of our community. We must review and critique ourselves in both frameworks. We must ask whether we are advancing as individuals. We must also frankly assess our accomplishments and shortcomings as a community.
6. The preservation of the vision of the generation of the Haflagah
The generation of the Haflagah was deeply flawed in its religious beliefs and conduct. But the Midrash acknowledges that this generation did achieve a revolutionary accomplishment. Its members engineered the first large, organized, mutually supportive society. Therefore, although this generation was punished and dispersed, it was not destroyed. Instead, its members became the seedlings of new societies and communities. They transplanted their understanding of effective community cohesion to the new cultures and nations they established.
In other words, the generation of the Haflagah was not spared because it was less evil than the generation of the Mabul. In some respects it was more evil. Its rebellion against Hashem was more intense. The capacity to promulgate its perverse views and to suppress opposition was enhanced by the society’s remarkable unity. However, this generation had made a discovery that was essential for the advancement of humankind. It had conceived, engineered, and implemented a design for an organized, effective community. Therefore, although the generation was punished, its discovery was preserved within the memories and experiences of its dispersed members. These members set out to their various destinations and established diverse new communities. Their memories and experiences provided these social pioneers with a plan and model for the creation of their new societies.
1. Rashi, Commentary on Sefer Bersheit 6:11.
2. Rashi, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 11:1.
3. Midrash Rabba, Sefer Beresheit 38:6.
4. Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 6:13.
5. Midrash Rabba, Sefer Beresheit 38:6.
6. Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Avodah Zarah 2:4.
7. Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah 3:1-2.