Thoughts on Noach (2018/5779)

(Gen. 6:9 – 11:12)

 [Dvar Torah given at Temple Israel on Friday 10/12/18]

This week we are in Parshat Noach.  Noach (or “Noah” in its typical English form) is of course most popularly known for the story of Noah’s ark and of the flood that lasted forty days and forty nights.

One of my favorite cartoons[1] which I keep tacked up on the bulletin board in my office – shows two dinosaurs on a little rock, with rising waters around them and an ark in the distance with pairs of various kinds of animals looking back at them.  And one dinosaur says to the other: “Oh, crap! Was that TODAY!”

But, ultimately, it’s no laughing matter. 

Most of us have known the story of Noah’s Ark from the time we were young children.  It’s pretty scary if you dwell on it, just as current accounts of rising sea levels and melting polar ice caps can scare us today.  In the Torah’s account of Noah and the flood, the great deluge is brought about by God because society had become so full of violence that God regretted creating humanity in the first place.   But, as it says in the last verse of last week’s Parashat Bereshit: 

וְנֹ֕חַ מָ֥צָא חֵ֖ן בְּעֵינֵ֥י יְ-ה-וָֽ-ה׃

“But Noah found grace in the eyes of the Eternal.”[2]

At the end of the flood narrative, God promises Noah not to ever flood the earth again.

As I learned in Hebrew School when I was a little boy, the lesson is that just because God won’t destroy the world with a great flood doesn’t necessarily mean that we humans won’t destroy the world by ourselves.  When I was a kid, the big concern we all worried about was the nuclear arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Nowadays, regional conflicts notwithstanding, environmental crises seem like bigger threats to the world than the nuclear arms race – for the moment anyway.

This morning, I drove over to Canal Park and then ventured out onto the Lakewalk – or what’s left of it.  Up here in the Twin Ports we haven’t experienced the sort of destruction that hurricanes in the Southeast United States have caused in recent days, months and years.  However, damage on our Lakewalk[3], following similar damage last year around this time, should certainly give us pause.

With mid-term elections coming up in just a few weeks, let us hope that the representatives we elect will take seriously the need to address climate change.  It’s no hoax, no matter what the current administration might claim.

As memorable and evocative as the story of Noah and the flood is, I’ve long been more fascinated by the briefer and more mysterious tale of the Tower of Babel, which we also find in this week’s Torah portion.

The Torah is relatively clear about what was the sin that caused God to destroy Noah’s generation in the great flood.  The whole earth, we are told, was corrupted and filled with violence.[4]  Rashi comments that the corruption was that of lewdness and idolatry and the violence was that of robbery.

But the Torah is not so clear about what was the sin that caused God to destroy the Tower of Babel and to create mass confusion by mixing up people’s languages. 

Unlike the generation of the flood, the generation of the Tower of Babel were not violent towards one another.  Rather they cooperated with one another.

As it says in Gen. 11:1  --

 וַיְהִי כָל-הָאָרֶץ, שָׂפָה אֶחָת, וּדְבָרִים, אֲחָדִים.

“All the earth had one language and the same words.”

Rabbi Jay Kelman untangles the mystery for us.  He writes:

The generation of the flood, or rather, the culmination of ten generations, was one that tore people apart. Murder, rape, and deceit were their hallmarks. One did not know whom to trust, nor who might stab you in the back. Our sages, in a remarkable comment (Sanhedrin 108a), note that THE sin that caused G-d to destroy the world—the straw that broke the camel’s back—was that of theft.

Thievery is indicative of a total breakdown of society. Cities go into decay when people are afraid to venture outside for fear of being mugged. And though lacking the violence, white-collar crime is just as dangerous to the fabric of a community. […] 

If the generation of the flood was marked by total disarray, the dor haflaga, the generation of dispersion, had the opposite problem. They were too unified. While speaking the same language is great from a communication point of view, it’s not so great if it means that we all think alike. The dor haflaga was not only safa echad, one language; it was also devarim achadim, the same things. There was no room for dissent, questioning, or differing opinions. [5]

Still being dispersed is much better than being drowned.  From this the sages teach that conformity might be problematic, but all things being equal it’s better to get along with one another than to be violent to one another.  Or, in the words of Rashi’s commentary:

Which sin was greater: that of the generation of the Flood or that of the generation of the Dispersion? The former did not stretch forth their hands against God; the latter did stretch forth their hands against God to war against [God] (surely, then, the sin of the generation of the Dispersion was greater) and yet the former (the generation of the Flood) were drowned and these did not perish from the world! But the reason is that the generation of the Flood were violent robbers and there was strife among them, and therefore they were destroyed; but these conducted themselves in love and friendship, as it is said, “They were one people and had one language”. — You may learn from this how hateful to God is strife and how great is peace. (Rashi on Gen. 11:9, citing Genesis Rabbah 38:6).

The Tower of Babel story seems like a parable for today.

In this age of podcasting and curated newsfeeds and political tribalism, we often find ourselves surrounding ourselves only with people with whom we agree.  Reasoned debate seems endangered.  Diversity of outlooks seems denigrated. 

Cooperation and consensus are good if they are genuine.  But not if they are the result of enforced social and ideological conformity.

The terror of the flood story concludes with the beautiful image of the rainbow.  Its multiple hues remind us of the beauty of diversity.

The Tower of Babel story ends with the creation of multiple human languages.  Yes, it can cause confusion, but the diversity of the world’s languages is also something beautiful in our world.

Striking that balance between social cohesion and individual freedom remains the challenge for each generation including our own.

Shabbat shalom


© Rabbi David Steinberg

(October 2018/ Cheshvan 5779)






[1] http://climatebites.org/climate-communication-humor-and-cartoons/158-Missing-the-boat-Oh-crap

[2] Genesis 6:8

[3] http://www.duluthnewstribune.com/video/qJSu6t7d

[4] See Gen. 8:11 and Rashi’s commentary on it. https://www.chabad.org/library/bible_cdo/aid/8171/jewish/Chapter-6.htm#showrashi=true

[5] https://www.torahinmotion.org/discussions-and-blogs/noach-coming-apart-coming-together

Posted on October 16, 2018 .