Noach – 5778
Genesis 6:9 – 11:32
Part of the genius of Torah is that it does not start with Judaism or even Jews, but with humanity. Neither Adam nor Eve were Jewish, nor were Cain or Abel. The Jewish narrative does not begin until (in next week’s parasha) God calls upon Abram to leave his family and his land to a place that God will show him. Noach is not about the Jewish people, it is about all people.
Noah’s saga ends with the divine promise never to destroy creation again, and moves on to the shortest story in all of Torah: eleven whole verses dedicated to the Tower of Babel. The really short version is this: all of the people of the world lived together, and spoke the same language, and decided to build a tower up to the heavens. God does not like the idea, and confuses their speech by introducing different languages so that they could no longer understand each other. Then God scatters them across the world.
Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, head of the Volozhin Yeshiva in the late 19th Century taught that the Tower of Babel was the first totalitarianism. Why? Just look at the first verse of the story: “The entire earth had one language, and spoke the same words.” [Gen. 11:1] This is the ultimate expression of human uniformity. If everyone speaks not only the same language but the same words then there is no individualism, no creativity, no growth, no diversity. We are all the exactly the same, and never change.
Torah, beginning with the Babel story, repudiates the very concept of uniformity or universalism as an ideal. God responds to the people of Babel, by forcing diversity upon them, and therefore, upon us. Then, in next week’s parasha, God singles out Abram and says, in effect, be different. This is a big part of what it means to be Jewish. The rest of Torah goes on to differentiate Israel from among the peoples; it defines our particular relationship with God and assigns us our own special set of divinely ordained obligations – 613 of them to be precise.
The theological and practical ramifications of this are breathtaking. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes: “Judaism has a structural peculiarity so perplexing and profound that though its two daughter monotheisms, Christianity and Islam, took much else from it, they did not adopt this: it is a particularlist monotheism. It believes in One God but not in one exclusive path to salvation.”1
In other words, being chosen in this way does not mean we are better than anyone else, or that God favors Jews over the nations. Rather, the message is one that values diversity. God wants us to be different because diversity in an of itself is good.
What an extraordinary message for us today.