This week’s Torah portion — which relates the story of the great flood and of the events that lead to the building of the Tower of Babel — contains this seemingly positive declaration:
The whole earth was of one language and of common purpose. (Genesis 11:1)
It sounds like peace on earth, good will to all men, utopia.
Indeed, it was peace on earth, but a war against heaven.
Rashi tells us that the people of the earth had united around the following idea: “God has no right to take the heavens for Himself; let us go up to heaven and wage war with Him.” (See Breishis raba, 38,6.)
This very strange idea is presented as the underlying theme of the Generation of the Dispersal. The consequence of this war with God was the splitting of mankind into seventy different languages and cultures:
And God dispersed them from there over the face of the whole earth; and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel, because it was there that God confused the language of the whole earth, and from there God scattered them over the face of the whole earth. (Genesis 11:8-9).
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WAR AGAINST GOD?
How can we understand the idea of waging war against God? It is one thing to be skeptical about His existence, but to believe in God and yet decide to fight Him? How could a rational human being possibly adopt such an attitude?
Moreover, what is the war about? Rashi says it is over the fact that God assumed exclusive possession over the heavens. But what does man want with the heavens? He surely has no desire to live there. After all, man’s habitat is the earth, and it is the earth that is his focus of interest. Rare is the human being who is interested in departing it prematurely to obtain a taste of heaven. Why then, should man want to wage war to gain control over the heavens, even assuming he had the power to aspire to such a dominion?
But what does man want with the heavens? He surely has no desire to live there.
This question points the way to the answer and gives us the key to understand the dispersal. Man wants control over the heavens because it is the heavens that provide the inputs he requires to enrich his earthly life. The essence of belief in God is the knowledge that it is God who is the source of all being and energy. A created world is not assembled out of pre-existing materials. It is fashioned out of Divine energy. Even the “natural processes” of such a world must all be fueled by fresh inputs of Divine energy.
This constant input of Divine energy is called the “heavens” in the very first verse in Genesis: In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. “Heavens” is the generic term used by the Torah to express the idea of “giver” (or energy source), whereas the earth is the generic term for the idea of “receiver.”
If God controls the heavens, the input of Divine energy that maintains the earth is supplied on His terms, according to conditions set by Him. If man controls the heavens, then this input of Divine energy follows the dictates of man. As man has no supernatural powers, and cannot directly dictate to the Divine energy and tell it what to do, practically speaking, man’s control of the heavens translates into a universe that runs entirely according to natural law. For as long as the Divine energy is distributed according to the dictates of natural law, man has total control over all the inputs into his universe.
This is due to the fact that all processes that are governed by natural law can be brought under man’s control. He can study natural law and understand it, and he can, therefore, make the universe do his bidding in ways that he can predict and control. When he fully unravels the mysteries of natural law — and that is simply a matter of time given human intelligence — he can find solutions to all his problems. But if God is in control of the heavens, man can never be the master of his own destiny. Ultimately it is God that makes all the decisions that involve the distribution of the Divine energy in the universe and man is always subject to His will.
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WINNING WITH HARMONY
Now we understand what the war is about. But we still cannot fathom how man can possibly dream of winning such a war. After all, by definition Divine energy belongs to God, so how can man possibly aspire to control it?
Man’s weapon against God is the maintenance of social harmony and establishment of world peace.
The answer is surprising: Man’s weapon against God is the maintenance of social harmony and the establishment of world peace.
To appreciate this we have to realize that world history has a pattern. The Generation of the Dispersal learned how to conduct its war with God from the Generation of the Flood. The Generation of the Flood also rebelled against God’s dominion. But the Torah itself informs us that it was not this rebellion that brought on the world’s destruction. The immediate cause of the destruction was the oppression of man by his fellow.
Now the earth had become corrupt before God; and the world had become filled with oppression. (Genesis 6:12)
The Talmud learns from here that although the earth was totally corrupted by idolatry and immorality, the fate of the flood generation was only sealed for destruction because of acts of robbery and oppression. (Sanhedrin 108a)
God is endlessly tolerant of man’s sins, but He listens to the cry of the oppressed, as we are taught:
You shall not cause pain to any widow or orphan. If you cause him [the orphan] pain … if he shall cry out to Me, I shall surely hear his outcry. My wrath shall blaze and I shall kill you by the sword, and your wives will be widows and your children orphans. (Exodus 22:21-23)
God’s anger must be ignited before He will consent to sit in judgment, and it only blazes when the cry of the oppressed reaches His ears. Once God assumes the seat of justice, He will administer retribution for all of man’s sins, but unless He is prompted to do so by the cries of the oppressed, man can, in effect, do as he likes as God will never agree to sit in judgment.
This principle finds its strongest expression in the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the twin cities who are metaphors for evil and its consequences:
Now the people of Sodom were wicked and sinful towards God, exceedingly. (Genesis 13:13)
Yet, despite their evil, God only brought them to justice because of the outcry of an oppressed maiden.
“I will descend and see: if they act in accordance with this outcry, then destruction!” (Genesis 18:21)
The Midrash explains that this outcry, which prompted God to sit in judgment, was the scream released by Lot’s daughter Plitas as she was cruelly murdered by the populace for having committed the crime of secretly feeding a pauper. (Pirkei d’R’Elazar, Ch.25)
The same thing had happened in the time of the generation that preceded the flood, and it was this kind of cruelty of man against man that led God to destroy the earth.
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A LESSON LEARNED
But mankind internalized the lesson of the flood. The Generation of the Dispersal was exceptional in the excellence of its inter-personal relationships. The “common purpose” referred to in the verse quoted above is interpreted by the Midrash to imply social unity and harmony. (See Bereishis Rabba, 38,6.) People had learned that as long as they did not oppress others, they could do as they wished. As long as no outcry issued from the oppressed, God would leave them to their own designs.
God can never find it in His heart to treat people who are good to each other very harshly.
Indeed, they were substantially correct. In comparing the Generation of the Dispersal with Generation of the Flood, the Midrash finds the former more culpable. Yet God did not destroy them; He merely scattered them. God hates dissension but loves peace. He can never find it in His heart to treat people who are good to each other very harshly. (See Rashi, 11:8.)
Having drawn the broad outlines of the story of the dispersal, let us try to understand some of the motivations involved. For the person who does not believe that ultimately, all solutions come from God, it is intolerable to remain in a problematic situation for which there does not appear to be a solution. The Israeli establishment had to believe that there was a rational solution to the problem of coexistence with the Palestinians, a solution they could arrive at by themselves. As this involved making peace with Arafat they forced themselves to believe that he was a credible peace partner despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
The alternative to such a belief was to accept the fate of living in a country where there is no foreseeable prospect of peace, and where the Israeli people will never fully control their own fate. Israel would be forced to place its trust in God. Such a proposition is unacceptable to “modern” man. To tolerate life, he must feel that he is the master of his own fate and is able to solve his own problems.
The proposition of entrusting one’s fate to God was no more acceptable to ancient man. He also was unwilling to lead an existence that he couldn’t completely control. Hence his desire to wrest the control of the heavens out of the hands of God.
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THE MISSING PIECE
But there is still a missing piece here. Modern man is truly unable to rely on God, as he has been taught not to believe in Him, but ancient man went to war with the God he recognized not only as the creator of his world but the supplier of all the energy that it takes to run it. Why didn’t this belief make a difference?
To fully understand, we must learn some more human history.
In the prelude to the flood, the Torah contains the following passage:
And it came to pass that when man began to increase upon the face of the earth and daughters were born to them, the sons of Elohim saw that the daughters of man were good and they took themselves wives from whomever they chose. (Genesis 6:1-2)
The commentators explain this title the “sons of Elohim” in various ways; this is the interpretation offered by Nachmanides:
Following the sin of Adam, who was himself fashioned by the hands of God personally, and his banishment from the Garden of Eden, there were two types of offspring in the world. The members of Adam’s immediate family and their descendants retained an aspect of godliness about them, but the rest of mankind were all ordinary human beings. This aspect of godliness retained by the sons of Adam inspired such awe among the rest of mankind that no one dared to oppose these godlike beings, and consequently these people did as they liked until they were all destroyed by the flood.
When Noah, the sole survivor of the flood emerged from the ark, the Torah describes him thus:
Noah, the man of the earth, debased himself and planted a vineyard. (Genesis 9:20)
Noah was a “man of the earth.” There were no more sons of Elohim on the planet. There was nothing godlike about Noah. He was a man of the earth. Contrast this with the Torah’s description of Moses:
And this is the blessing that Moses, the man of God, bestowed upon the children of Israel (Deut. 33:1)
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THE TURNING POINT
Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzatto, in his work Derech Hashem, “Path of God,” explains that the turning point in history over this issue happened at the time of the Generation of the Dispersal. Until then it was possible for anyone to choose to be a man of God, and return to the original lofty level upon which Adam was created. Whoever chose to do so would have descendants who were also men of God.
This was the heroic age of human history, the age of archetypes and patriarchs and the door was open to all.
All of the seventy families of mankind had this option open to them. Until the dispersal, they were all able to climb out of the Noahide status of being “men of earth” and could all become “men of God.” This was the heroic age of human history, the age of archetypes and patriarchs and the door was open to all.
But only Abraham chose this path. In Genesis (14:13) he is referred to as Ivri, a word that means “bank” or “side” in Hebrew, because the entire world was on one side and he was on the other. (See Bereishis Rabba, 42,8.)
Had others chosen this path, all of humanity would have been treated by God in exactly the same manner as the descendants of Abraham, God’s Torah would have become the legacy of all human beings, and all human offspring would have been born into a flourishing God-man covenant.
In fact, the unity achieved by mankind prior to the dispersal was precisely over this question of choosing to be “men of the earth” and not “men of God.” Mankind was unified by its universal desire to wage war against God.
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TWO KINDS OF BELIEVERS
Belief in God does not shield one from becoming a “man of the earth.” There was no greater believer than Noah himself who was the first to bear this description. To be a man of God, one has to decide to live with God, to base one’s life around the God-man relationship. But one whose life is based on such a relationship is never the master of his own fate.
There is little difference between the modern thinker who is skeptical of God’s existence and the ancient believer who rejects the idea of basing his life around forming a relationship with God. Such a believer wants to consign God to remote history shrouded in the mists of creation and consequently make Him irrelevant, or to the distant future when the Messiah will finally proclaim the coming of a new world order, and therefore make Him not yet relevant. Bottom line: this kind of believer wants the world of the present that he inhabits to be totally under his own control.
World history was fixed by the dispersal. When the seventy nations were frozen into the mold of “men of the earth,” God withdrew His presence from them. Lacking the opposition to the common enemy — which God’s presence had represented — they no longer had a focus for their unity and so they split apart into their natural divisions. They differentiated into the seventy human families that were always destined to descend from Adam, and being “men of the earth,” they each went their own way and found their own spot on the planet.
The key to human unity and world peace was left in the hands of Abraham, the only human of that time who elected to become a “man of God.”
In fact the Midrash (in Bereishis raba, 38,6) points this out in a most dramatic way. The rabbis understand that the commonality of purpose referred to was directed against the other principles of unity — God and Abraham. Against Abraham they declared, “There is no need to concern ourselves about him. He is obviously a sterile mule. He presents no danger as he has no future. His ideas will die along with him.” Against God they declared war using their own unity as explained above.
Well this sterile mule has managed to make a great noise in the world after all. The line of the “men of God” he established is still flourishing. If only it could manage to unify as well.