By Rabbi Avraham
Fischer. A publication of the Orthodox Union in cooperation with the Seymour
J. Abrams Orthodox Union Jerusalem World Center
Shabbat Parshat Noach
30 Tishrei 5765 - October 15, 2004
Over four centuries of human history are
chronicled in this parsha, in which two sinful generations and their punishments
are prominent. How do these two generations compare with each other?
Both generations are identified with monumental construction projects. Noach and
his family are rescued from the Flood in the Ark:
And G-d said to Noach, “The end of all flesh has come before Me, for the earth
is filled with violence through them; and behold I am about to destroy them from
the earth. Make for yourself an Ark of gopher wood; make the Ark with
compartments, and cover it inside and out with pitch”
Five generations later, mankind unites to
build the Tower of Bavel:
And the whole world was of one language and of common purpose. And it was, when
they traveled from the East that they discovered a valley in the land of Shin’ar
and settled there. And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks and
burn them in fire.” And the brick served them as stone, and the bitumen served
them as mortar. And they said, “Come, let us build us 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 face of the whole earth” (11:1-4).
Those destroyed by the Flood are guilty of violence, while the project to build
the city and Tower is an attempt to subvert Hashem’s will that all the earth be
inhabited after the Flood (see 9:1,7,18-19; 10:5,20,31-32). The former abuse one
another; the latter rebel against Hashem. Which is worse?
Our Sages consider this question in the Midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 38:6):
Said R. Eliezer: Who is worse, the one who says to the king, “Either you are in
the palace, or I am,” or the one who says, “I am in the palace, and you are
not”? Certainly, the one who says, “I am in the palace, and you are not”! This
is what the generation of the Flood said, Who is the Almighty that we should
serve Him? And what will we gain if we implore Him? (Iyov 21:15). The generation
of the dispersion said, “It is not fair that He should choose the upper worlds
for Himself and give us the lower worlds. So, come let us make ourselves a Tower
and place an idol at the top with a sword in its hand appearing to go to war
The generation of the Flood say, “Let G-d remain in His palace, and we will
manage our lives without Him.” Theirs is a dog-eat-dog society, bent on anarchy.
They want Hashem to remain uninvolved in the human sphere. Noach, in contrast,
exemplifies Hashem’s true message to humanity, that He is intimately engaged in
Noach walked with G-d (6:9).
For the builders of the Tower, Man is the supreme value, and the individual is
subordinated to the collective. The results are dehumanization and tyranny.
Avram, who at the time of the Tower is 48 and has recognized the Creator (Seder
Olam), proclaims Hashem as the Source of all values Who holds each human being
The fate of the generation of the Flood is of their own doing; when Hashem
destroys them with water, they effectively return to the world’s original state:
The earth was chaos, with darkness on the face of the deep, and the spirit of
G-d hovering over the surface of the waters (1:2).
On the other hand, the consolidated Tower builders are punished with
Each generation has modern parallels. The counterpart to the Flood generation is
the “cult of science”:
… the popular philosophy of scientism … expresses itself on the conscious level
in an attitude that regards all problems of life to be, at bottom, merely
technical problems capable of solution simply by the application of “scientific
method.” … ends and values lie in a realm beyond positive science …
(Will Herberg, Judaism and Modern Man).
Corresponding to the Tower builders are Marxism and Secular Humanism:
The highest being for man is man himself (Karl Marx).
Knowledge and power come from people and from the nature in which they live. …
We rely on such sources as reason, observation, experimentation, creativity and
artistic expression to address questions about the world and in seeking to
understand our experiences (Society for Humanistic Judaism).
The generation of the Flood ignore G-d; the builders of the Tower of Bavel seek
to usurp G-d. Accordingly, it would seem that the former were more sinful than
the latter. Nevertheless, the former were completely destroyed, while the latter
were merely thwarted, as the Midrash continues:
No remnant was left of the generation of the Flood, whereas the generation of
the dispersion left a remnant!
The Midrash explains:
However, because the generation of the Flood were immersed in robbery, as it
says, They remove landmarks, they steal the flock, and they feed (Iyov 24:2),
therefore there is no remnant left of them. But the latter, since they loved one
another, as it says, And the whole world was of one language, therefore a
remnant is left of them.
Although undermining Hashem’s design, their
unity and rapport, albeit misplaced, render them impervious to destruction,
because, as the Midrash concludes,
Great is peace. … Says the Omnipresent, “I am not, as it were, able to control
them, since there is peace amongst them.”
Noach lives in a world that banishes Hashem’s Presence, and although he walked
with G-d, he has no effect on his generation. He is delivered from their doom in
an Ark that, like him, floats above the chaos (R. Moshe Alshich, 1508-1600). 340
years after the Flood, humankind joins together to build a Tower to depose
But, besides the Ark and the Tower, there is a third model of building —
Avraham’s Tent of hospitality. There, each guest learns about his true place in
society and his proper relationship to the Creator.
Careful readers of Sefer Bereishit know that Avram Avinu’s trek to the
Land of Canaan did not begin with the Lech-Lecha command in Chapter 12;
rather it was set into motion as a “family outing” at the end of Parshat
Noach (Noach, 11:31). Without any explanation given, the family patriarch,
Terach, takes his son, grandson and daughter-in-law on a trip towards
In an attempt to explain Terach’s travels, the Midrash tells of the trials
and tribulations of Terach’s family in Ur, beginning with the well-known
story of Avram smashing his father’s idols and continuing with King Nimrod
condemning him to death (see Bereshit Rabbah 38). Despite Avram’s
miraculous escape from the fiery furnace into which he had been cast,
Haran’s death at the hands of Nimrod was enough to convince Terach that it
was time for his family to move on.
The Midrash also relates that after having been commanded to continue
towards the unnamed Promised Land, Avram evaluated the merits of each land
through which he passed. In Aram Naharaim and Aram Nachor, he saw the
people running after pleasures and partying, and immediately prayed that
this should not be his land. When he reached Eretz Yisrael, he saw that
the people had a healthy work ethic and were busily engaged in
agricultural work; he prayed that this should be the land chosen for him (Bereshit
Even in Avram’s day, reasons for Aliya ranged from a desire for a more
meaningful and spiritual life, to escape from anti-Semitism, to a sense of
a call from God. After 2000 years of exile we have today yet another
reason. Here we are at home.
Rabbi Shalom Z. Berger, Ed.D.
The Lookstein Center for Jewish Education in the Diaspora
Bar Ilan University
*D’var Torah from Aloh Na'aleh:
an initiative of former North
American Rabbis and laymen who successfully made Aliyah, aimed at
highlighting the centrality of Israel and promoting Aliyah. They send
emissaries – Rabbis, academicians, and others – on speaking-tours
throughout the U.S. and Canada.
Rabbi Yerachmiel Roness ,
Exec. Dir., Aloh Naaleh,
At the OU Center, 22 Keren HaYesod
Tel.(02) 566-7787 ex. 254