Friday, October 23, 2009

Shabbat Noach

Earlier this week, I was trying to get caught up on some of my internet reading and I happened across a blog written by a friend and colleague on Jewish Family Living. The questions she posed for families reading her blog focused on words. One in particular resonated with me: Why do you think God names things? What is the importance of a name?

I began to think of the names – the labels – we apply to the children we work with (whether our own children, or someone else’s) and the profound impact the use of those names can have on the individuals so addressed. I also was reminded anew how the use of names/labels – even when used privately, in my own mind and never spoken aloud – affects how I view a particular student. “Motor-mouth,” “whiner,” “naysayer” – all carry a connotation that’s best not even allowed to enter my mind.

Labels applied in frustration, anger or fatigue color my perspective indelibly. How much more positive are interactions with students that I describe as “eager,” “sensitive,” or “cautious.”

Those were the thoughts that framed my view of this week’s parshah. Beginning with “This is the line of Noach…” through the story of the world around him, his building the ark, the flood, the receding waters, the covenantal sign of the rainbow, the Tower of Babel, the listing of generations to the birth of Abram, and ending with the death of Terah (Abram’s father) in Haran. There’s a wealth of commentary on the story of Noah. Much less is readily accessible (ie, available online) on the remainder of the parshah.

This year’s triennial portion is Chapter 11 of B’reisheit. It begins with the words: Everyone on earth had the same language and the same words.

We know from our studies that repetitions are like flashing lights which say, “Pay attention to me!” I wonder why the repetition of “language” and “words.” They seem to mean the same thing. How are they the same? And how are they different?

The Big Question for this story seems to be “What’s so bad about building a Tower?” And in fact, our text never gives an explicit answer to this question.

Chapter 11:8 Let us build us a city, and a tower with its top to the sky, to make a name for ourselves; else we shall be scattered all over the world.

God, in essence, then says, “Well, if that’s how you’re going to behave, then I’ll scatter you anyway.”

But it doesn’t really say what specifically God was objecting to – building a city; building a tower; building a tower to the sky; or making a name for themselves. That’s called “Missing Information,” and all commentators can do is try to fill the gaps.

And so, over the course of time, a variety of “explanations” have been suggested:

  • Rabbi Boruch Leff: When man can accomplish all that he wishes to accomplish, he does not need God. Witness that they left 'from the east.' The previous reference to 'the east' was to the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:8). They wished to leave the closest possible place to God that existed then and wanted to forge their own destiny without God's assistance. They wished to build a unifying city and tower but specifically wanted to begin the building in a valley. Although the usage of a hill or mountain would facilitate making the tower as high as possible, they didn't want to use anything natural or 'God-made'. There was no room for God's involvement in their project.
  • Louis Ginzburg, Legends of the Jews; "Come, let us build us a city and a tower." Many, many years were spent building the tower. It reached so great a height that it took a year to mount to the top. A brick was, therefore, more precious in the sight of the builders than a human being. If a man fell down and met his death, none took notice of it; but if a brick dropped, they wept, because it would take a year to replace it. So intent were they upon accomplishing their purpose that they would not permit a woman to interrupt her work of brickmaking when the hour of travail came upon her. Moulding bricks, she gave birth to her child, and tying it round her body in a sheet, she went on moulding bricks.
  • Rabbi Matt Carl: The Torah indicates a second problem with Babel-esque development. It says that the people built the tower "to make a name for ourselves (Genesis 11:3-4).'" The builders had reputation and status on their agenda. The midrash adds that cultivating a reputation, "a name," is usually accompanied by inequality at the deepest level. Nimrod's project required enslavement of his people and abject inequality, all in the service of ego, arrogance and narcissism.
  • Rabbi Avi Geller (in The Lively Parshah overview) writes: The descendants of Noah all decided to live together in the great valley of Babel. They appointed the first dictator and all spoke the same language (Hebrew, according to tradition). They then decided to wage war on their Creator. "We will build a Tower to ascend Heaven and battle the Almighty!"

    Others explain that they denied God's Hand in the Flood, and saw it simply as a quirk of nature. Thus it was imperative to build supports for the Heavens, to insure that they don't fall down again!

Most of these “explanations” – attempts to fill in “missing information” - are more or less familiar to many of us. I found none of them particularly satisfying to me, at this point in my life, in the year 5770.

I kept hearing the echo in my mind from verse 1 of this chapter: Everyone on earth had the same language and the same words.

Words … scrambled languages…. failure to communicate …

Within the recent past, in my professional life, there have been several instances in which communication between individuals became terribly mangled – feelings were hurt; frustration experienced; anger expressed at perceived slights.

Words….in the same language…scrambled meanings … failure to communicate

And then I stumbled across these words from Arthur Koestler, a prolific writer in 20th century Europe, a secular Jew, and recipient of the Sonning Prize at the University of Copenhagen in 1968 for “outstanding contribution to European culture.”

Language promotes communication and understanding within the group, but it also accentuates the differences in traditions and beliefs between groups; it erects barriers between tribes, nations, regions, and social classes. The Tower of Babel is an archetypal symbol of the process that turns the blessing into a curse and prevents man from reaching into heaven. According to Margaret Mead, among the two million aborigines in New Guinea, 750 different languages are spoken in 750 villages, which are at permanent war with one another.

As much as we focus on being part of one huge melting pot – or tossed vegetable salad, depending on your current frame of reference – sometimes our biggest misunderstandings arise when what I hear is not what you meant, even if I understand the words that you used. Our meanings become “babbled,” if not the actual words themselves.

So, for me, the message behind the Tower of Babel is to be mindful of the words I use – and to check for understanding as carefully in English as I do when I speak to my non-English-speaking friends.

Shabbat shalom.

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