Paradise Lost. By Rav Noson Weisz

Noach(Genesis 6:9-11:32)

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).

* * *

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.

* * *

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.

* * *

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.

* * *

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)

* * *

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.

* * *

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.

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One Response to Paradise Lost. By Rav Noson Weisz

  1. Noach(Genesis 6:9-11:32)
    Unified Technology Against God?
    by Rav Boruch Leff

    “One of the greatest tragedies of intellectual human experience is that we study Bible stories when we are 55 in the same manner as we studied them when we were 5.” – Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetzky, of blessed memory

    We may know the story of the Tower of Bavel from our childhood, but like many Biblical stories, have we ever pondered its depth and profundity? A careful reading of Genesis (11:1-8) will bring forth some fascinating insights.

    “The whole world was of one language and of unified words. It was when they migrated from the east they found a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there. Each man said to each other, ‘Come, let’s make bricks and burn them in fire.’ The bricks served for them as stone and the mortar as clay. They said, ‘Come, let’s build a city and a tower with its top in the heavens and let’s make a name for ourselves, lest we become dispersed across the earth.’ God descended to see the city and tower which the sons of man built. God said, ‘Behold, they are one people with one language for all of them and this is what they begin to do? Now, nothing will remain unattainable to them, they will accomplish everything they have in mind to accomplish. Come, let us descend and confuse their language so that they won’t understand each other.’ God dispersed them from there over the face of the earth and they stopped building the city.”

    First, some questions:

    Why is important to know that they were traveling from the east?

    Why must we know that they settled in a valley?

    Why did they choose brick and mortar rather than stone and clay, and why does the Torah inform us of this?

    What does it mean that God descends to the world?

    Finally, what exactly were their plans for a city and a tower and what did God see in this plan that was so destructive?

    * * *

    THE GLOBAL VILLAGE

    It is interesting to note that the people were afraid of being dispersed across the earth and indeed, this is exactly what God does to them in the end. What is so bad about having mankind spread out? The answer is a notion that our generation can appreciate perhaps more than any other.

    We hear constantly of the idea of the ‘global village’ — that nothing in the world happens in a vacuum. When something happens in one part of the world, it is not only known in minutes (if not seconds) in another part of the world, but it affects it greatly.

    With the advent of technology, the entire world is like a small village. Advances in communication have made the sharing of knowledge an extremely simple and fast endeavor. This has changed society tremendously.

    The generation of the Tower of Bavel wanted to be the first global village.We all know the famous cliche, “Two heads are better than one.” Certainly, then, hundreds of nations (and billions of people) sharing information about improvements and technological advancements with one another will produce a much more advanced world. This contributes to new inventions in medicine, technology, and virtually all aspects of life. This is why the generation of the Tower of Bavel desperately wanted to stay together. They knew that population would continually expand requiring more and more space, but they would at least have a unifying force — the tall tower. Although, they would populate the vast lands across the earth, they would still view themselves as one city. They would be a global village.

    And they did not yet have the handicap of differences in language that create distinctive cultures and ultimately create rifts between peoples and nations. These cultural differences have at times in history limited the sharing of knowledge between peoples. The unifying tower and city would prevent disputes from developing, and mankind would be able to advance technologically at as rapid a pace as possible.

    * * *

    WHO NEEDS GOD?

    But it seems God was not thrilled with this idea. He says, ‘Now nothing will remain unattainable to them. They will accomplish all that they have in mind to accomplish.’ What is so bad about that?

    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.

    There was no room for God’s involvement in their project.Thus their choice of bricks and mortar. They reject using natural ‘God-made’ materials like stone or clay and choose to create their own inventions for building materials.

    God descends into the world to make sure that man does not claim the world as his own without God’s involvement in it. He must make sure that man does not only make a name for himself (as the verse states) without God giving His stamp of approval and direction. So, God disperses man into many languages and nations thwarting the global village concept for thousands of years.

    Today we experience some of the unifying force of the Tower of Bavel as we live in a veritable global village. And perhaps this is where the problem begins.

    Over the past 200 years, since the advent of modern technology, man has become increasingly secular. The more we can figure out the hows and whys of the world, it seems, the less we need to believe and trust in God and religion. Man has become too confident, too secure with his control over many things in the world and looks at religion as designed for primitive thinkers.

    God has opened up the vistas of modern discovery for us.Judaism has a very different outlook. We are not afraid of technology. In fact we embrace it, but we must always keep it in perspective. God has given us the ability to master the world in ways that our ancestors never dreamed of. Technology has made life easier in a host of ways and modern medicine has resulted in an ever-increasing lifespan.

    But man has not accomplished all this on his own. God has opened up the vistas of modern discovery for us. We must constantly keep this in mind whenever we benefit from modern discoveries, thanking God for all that He has given us. We do not want to emulate the goals of the people of the Tower of Bavel.

    When we take the most updated pill for a headache, we should say a short prayer to God that the medicine works and not just be confident and secure with man’s inventions. When we use our laptops and the Internet, take a moment to express your gratitude to God for giving man the ability to create such an amazing tool for writing and communication.

    This is the kind of world that man was designed to live in. Man discovers and even masters the world, but all along man thanks and appreciates God for granting the wisdom and ability for him to accomplish.

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