Noach – Shoulder to Shoulder
After the flood civilization slowly built itself up. Generations passed and the land again became inhabited. Everyone was fairly closely related to each other, which doesn’t always make for good neighbors. Nevertheless, there is no indication of conflict in the generations following the great deluge. In fact the opposite appears to be the case.
The generation of the great division happened many years after the flood, in the 20th century, according to the Biblical accounting of years. This would have happened when Abraham was yet a young man.
Chapter 11 of Genesis begins by stating that the whole earth was of one language and of common purpose. At that time there was a revolutionary discovery in the building industry. No longer was it necessary to find and haul stones with which to build walls. Bricks could be manufactured and hardened in furnaces and mortar was also prepared. The people said, “Come, let us build a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed across the whole earth.” (Genesis 11:4)
This is the famous Tower of Babel, the attempt to reach the heavens and wrest power from God. This passage is interpreted in our tradition as a rebellion against God. The people took the fight to the heavens. They were no longer satisfied with dominating the earth, they also wished to rule the heavens. To this end they built a tower ‘with its top in the heavens,’ a challenge to God’s dominion of the heavenly regions.
The Torah’s narrative expresses God’s interest in this project. He went down to see what they were doing. The verse then writes something startling. “And Hashem said, ‘Behold they are one people with one language for all, and this they begin to do?! And now nothing they plan to do will be unattainable for them. Come, let us descend and there confuse their language, that they should not understand one another’s language.'” (ibid 11:6-7)
Astonishingly, this seems to suggest that their goal, of wresting power from God, was achievable! The verse testifies that they were unstoppable.This is attributed to the unity of the people, to their stellar communication and joint purpose. For this reason God was ‘compelled’ to diversify their language so they would not understand one another. Without good communication their common purpose quickly broke down and deteriorated. The inhabitants of the earth went their separate ways, establishing various tribes and communities, eventually becoming different races and developing different ethnicities.
The story is captivating and it is easy to get lost in the details. It speaks of industrial progress, of human power seeking – ideas that capture our interest because those are ever present with us. Technological advances are one of our greatest aims and we have achieved tremendous results in that area. Power seeking, domination of territory and people, is also something that we are experiencing today, and civilization has been perpetrating this, and dealing with this, for as long as history remembers.
We lose sight, however, of the most striking element of the story. Forget the goals. Forget the project. What is amazing is the notion that nothing was beyond their grasp. The Torah testifies that they could have achieved their objective of dominating the entire universe because of their unity. Nothing could stop them, no force could slow them, as long as they worked together. It didn’t matter that their goals were selfish and contrary to God’s wishes.
Imagine what we could do if we harness our unity and work toward something good, toward a project that is for the sake of God.
Around the world on Shabbat Noach Jewish communities engaged in a marvelous endeavor, the Shabbos project. Launched last year in South Africa, the Shabbos project brought together many people in a united effort to observe Shabbat. Many people who participated in the project had never before observed a Shabbat in their lives. People were inspired, uplifted, by this remarkable experience. Neighborhoods in South Africa came together, with preparations such as massive Challah baking in advance of Shabbat. Large Friday night dinners were organized on people’s property and in some places in the streets, for lack of room elsewhere. Jews came out of the woodwork and joined the effort, participating in what turned out to be a magnificent Shabbat. So successful was this project, in fact, that Rabbi Goldstein, the Chief Rabbi of South Africa, decided to expand it into a worldwide initiative. This Shabbat, beginning on Friday, 24 October, was slated for a Global Shabbos project. Instead of thousands of Jews observing Shabbat together, this project would touch hundreds of thousands. Shuls and communities have galvanized, deploying all of their resources toward this project. In six out of seven continents communities are participating. Tens of thousands of families have opened their homes to others, enabling them to properly observe this one Shabbat. Shuls have thrown open their doors, using their social halls for communal Shabbat dinners and lunches. Tens of thousands of Jews have been touched by this and will properly observe Shabbat perhaps for the first time in their lives.
Greater, however, than the achievement of Shabbat observance, is the achievement of unity, the journey of bringing all this together is unprecedented. Surely God in heaven has a great big smile on His ‘face’, watching His children engage in this project together. “And now, nothing they plan to do will be unattainable for them.”