Parashat Noach: The Brotherhood of Man

  • Rav Yair Kahn


The Flood and the Tower

Parashat Noach begins with the story of the Flood and continues with the episode of the Tower of Bavel, which led to the dispersion of mankind.  The mishna in Sanhedrin (10:1) compares the two, stating that the members of both generation are denied a portion in the World to Come.  Nevertheless, our Sages noted a sharp contrast between these two stories.  Rashi, based on the Midrash, comments:

Which is worse? [The sin] of the generation of the Flood or that of the generation of the dispersion? They [the generation of the Flood] did not reach out to attack the Essence [God], while they [the generation of the dispersion] reached out to attack the Essence, as it were, and to battle it.  They [the generation of the Flood] were washed away, while they [the generation of the dispersion] were destroyed.  However, the generation of the Flood were robbers and there was strife amongst them -- therefore they were destroyed -- while they [the generation of the dispersion] acted with love and friendship amongst themselves, as it says: “One language and unified things.”  From here you learn that strife is hated and peace is great.

Last week, we showed how the world order changed after the Flood.  Before the Flood, both Man and animal were members of one set; after the Flood, Man was separated from the world of animals and treated as a singular being.  The ante-diluvian order was pre-civilization.  Society had yet to be developed and, just like in the animal kingdom, muscle, not law, ruled the world of Man. 

In contrast, the story of the Tower of Bavel is introduced with the uniquely human phenomenon of speech: “And all the land was of one tongue” (11:1; see Targum Onkelos 2:7).  The story continues to document various acts of social cooperation.  First, there was cooperation in overcoming the limits of the Shinar valley environment, which lacked stones needed for building.  Second, we find cooperation in the building of a city and the tower.  The common language, pooling resources to create artificial building materials, and the determination to build a city, are all expressions of the emerging human society. 

The generation that was destroyed in the Flood, on the other hand, was a generation of anarchy and injustice.  It was a world of thievery and strife.  In that state, the world could not be redeemed.  The engineers of the Tower represented the new order.  They created a civilized society based on cooperation and working towards common goals.  True, those goals had to be re-adjusted, but the basic structure was desirable.  Upon the foundations of the ill-fated tower, mankind could continue to advance. 

A Tower That Reaches the Heavens

The plan to build the Tower is thwarted by Hashem.  The Torah, however, does not explain what was wrong with the plan.  There is no explicit mention of a prohibition that was violated.  In fact, there is no straightforward reference to punishment.  This led some commentators to view the Mishnaic comments as derash and to explain the literal meaning of the Torah along different lines.  They claim that the building of the Tower was terminated and the people were dispersed, not as punishment for any sin, but for the benefit of mankind.  For instance, the Ibn Ezra comments:

The basic explanation is that they wanted to be in one place.  The Honorable Name saw in His wisdom that they should live all over; after all, it is written, “And fill the land…”

According to the Ibn Ezra, the Tower was built to ensure that the emerging society would remain united.  At another point in history, it would have been a noble and legitimate endeavor.  However, at this early stage of human development, it was detrimental to the growth of civilization.  Man is called upon to fill the Earth (1:28), not only so that Earth should be inhabited, but also to enable humanity to develop.  A closed, homogeneous environment is not conducive to the advancement of mankind.  A monolithic human experience stifles man’s development.  Multiple cultural experiences are required to nurture the growth of variant ideas.  Different cultures must be developed, each with distinctive perspectives.  Cross-pollination of these perspectives and ideas will help humanity move forward.

However, most commentators follow the lead of the mishna in Sanhedrin, arguing that the plan to build the Tower was such a serious violation that it justified the denial of a portion in the World to Come.  Accordingly, the Tower was built to reach the Heavens, in order to challenge God, as it were.  While the Torah is ambiguous at best, this allegation was not contrived out of thin air.  Consider the phrase “and we shall make for ourselves a name,” in contrast to Avram, who erects an altar and calls out in the name of Hashem (12:8).  As opposed to Avram, who worships God, the builders of the Tower build an edifice devoted to self-aggrandizement.  Man begins to realize his creative ability.  He invents bricks to overcome environmental limitations.  His intelligence sets him apart from the rest of the natural order.  Man builds a tower of self-glorification, while God is pushed to the periphery.  Maybe this is what our Sages were referring to when they claimed that the builders of the Tower challenged God to battle.  Perhaps our Sages were clarifying the spiritual meaning behind the construction of a Tower that reaches the Heavens to make a name for oneself.   

Science and Religion

There is a fascinating midrash that may add an additional insight. 

They said: “Once every thousand six hundred and fifty six years, the sky collapses.  Let us make supports, one in the north and one in the south and one in the west, and this one here will support from the east.” (Bereishit Rabba 38)

According to this midrash, the Tower was built to prevent an additional Flood.  What is startling is that the language of the midrash does not see this as a way of thwarting Hashem’s punishment.  The Flood is perceived as a natural phenomenon that occurs periodically.  The objective of the Tower is to improve a flaw in nature, not to challenge God.  Yet wasn’t the Flood the single greatest act of divine providence in the ancient world? Didn’t Noah and his children pass the story of the Flood and the ark on to their offspring? Didn’t they tell their children about the behavior of the generation that was destroyed by Hashem? How could the Flood be viewed as a natural phenomenon?

As we mentioned above, the entire story of the Tower is prefaced by the human creativity that enabled Man to build, even though he lacked stones.  Man began to study and understand the laws of nature.  They began to experiment and invent.  This enabled them to harness the laws of nature to overcome the limits posed by the natural environment.  Nature was no longer a mystery; it became a challenge.  Human intellect could discover its laws and eventually gain control over nature. 

When the mystery of nature disappears, the awareness of Hashem’s presence vanishes as well.  Historically, there is a correspondence between scientific revolution and anti-clericism.  When Man begins to view the world from an empirical perspective, he finds no evidence of God.  He begins to doubt beliefs and traditions that have no scientific foundation.  Events which until now were explained base upon divine intervention are revisited. 

The builders of the Tower lived at a time of scientific discovery.  They treated the elders who spoke of God and a Flood with derision.  They believed that through technology, they could be master of their fate.  The Flood was a natural phenomenon that occurred periodically.  With proper planning, it could be prevented.  While God was pushed to the periphery, Man put himself at the center.  He became obsessed with self glorification; “and we shall make for ourselves a name.”   

The Rambam believed that Hashem acts within the context of natural law.  Therefore, the discovery of natural law is not a contradiction either to belief in God as creator or to faith in God’s providence.  The fact that there is no empirical data to indicate the existence of God is irrelevant.  Scientific tools are useful for the discovery of physical reality.  God, however, can not be discovered in the laboratory.  For the exploration of spiritual reality, a different set of tools is required.   

The Generation of the Dispersion and the Emergence of Avram

The early years of Avraham are not documented in the Torah.  Our Sages tried to piece together what those years were like.  One of the more important issues they discuss is how and at what point Avram made the great discovery of monotheism.  (The “how” question is not relevant to our present discussion.)  There are two opinions regarding at what point the discovery was made.  According to one, already at the age of three, little Avram realized the absurdity of paganism.  According to the second opinion, Avram’s great discovery was not made until he was forty-eight years old.[1]   

We can understand why the age of three is suggested.  Accordingly, Avraham our forefather was never a pagan; even as a young child, he realized the folly of idol worship.  The age of three reflects the earliest point at which a child begins to think about the world around him.  The claim that Avram began to believe in one God at the age of three is a claim that Avram was always perfect in his faith.   

The opinion that Avram did not come around to belief in Hashem until he was forty-eight suggests that Avram grappled and struggled with the issue of paganism.  It was not a simple and obvious conclusion.  Avram spent days debating the issue with others and with himself.  He spent sleepless nights gazing at the stars, wondering how far the heavens stretch and how they came into existence.  It wasn’t until he reached manhood that Avram finally concluded that there was only one Creator who created Heaven and earth. 

But how did our Sages come up with the specific age of forty-eight? The verse relates that Ever called his son Peleg (פלג), because “in his time the [inhabitants of the] land were dispersed (נפלגה)” (10:25).  According to Chazal, this is a reference to the division into separate nations that occurred in the aftermath of the Babylonian tower.  In fact, the term “peleg” does not appear in the Biblical section dealing with the Tower; it is the mishna in Sanhedrin that refers to that generation as the generation of dispersion, “Dor Ha-Palaga (הפלגה),” based on this verse.  However, Rashi notes the difficulty in dating the events of the Tower at the birth of Peleg.  His conclusion is that Peleg’s father, Ever, had a prophecy that the people of the world would be dispersed at the end of Peleg’s life.  Accordingly, Avram was 48 years old when mankind was dispersed and divided into separate nations (see Seder Olam). 

The implication of the above is obvious -- there is a connection between the division of humanity into separate nations and the chosen-ness of Israel.  The Torah states, “When the Most High gave the nations their inheritance, when He divided the children of Man, He set the borders of the nations according to the number of the children of Israel.  For the portion of Hashem is His people, Yaakov the lot of His inheritance” (Devarim 32:8-9).  When the brotherhood of man was dissolved, the plan for the redemption of the world shifted as well.  For the sake of human development, humanity was divided into multiple nations.  However, as Mankind realizes his human potential, he becomes so engrossed in self-glorification that he cannot worship God and accept His rule.  For the sake of religious redemption, separation is necessary.  A unique individual must be chosen to be the father of a special nation.  That nation will accept Hashem as king, following the ways of Hashem and bringing morality to the world.  God will establish a covenant with them and they will be a light to all other nations, until eventually Hashem will be recognized as king over the entire universe. 

In last week’s shiur, we noted how Earth was recreated after the Flood, based on a new order.  Before the Flood, Man and beast were all members of one set.  The events leading up to the Flood illustrated the failure of this system and the necessity of a new order, in which Man was separated from the animal world so that he could develop uniquely human institutions.  In this week’s shiur, we traced the next stage of development, which takes us from a mono-cultural civilization, lacking the stimulus of complexity, to a multi-cultural one.  We also noted that the division of mankind was necessary from a religious perspective.  Man, when treated as a unique creation, becomes involved in self glorification.  One nation is chosen, which will worship Hashem and bring the word of God to the world.  The time is ripe for Avram to step onto the stage of history.    


[1] The Rambam (Hilkhot Avoda Zara 1) maintains that there is no argument.  The two ages, three and forty-eight (forty according to the Rambam), refer to different stages of Avram’s development.