Sunday, October 14, 2012


A Lesson from two Failures (11:4)

Abraham does not tolerate selfishness or central planning. What then is the basis of a Jewish society?


A Lesson from two Failures (11:4)

The two great epochs of human history described in this week’s portion are not mere historical accounts but rather they are portraits of a classic human dilemma that persists till today. It is therefore no accident that these two time periods dissect this Biblical reading precisely in half. The first seventy seven verses deal with the life of Noach prior to the promise of, “This is the sign of the covenant.” And immediately following the appearance of the rainbow and a new world order we are told the story of the succeeding generations and their attempt at building the Tower of exactly seventy seven verses.

The flood was brought upon the world because of robbery and immorality. Where bridges of trust might have been built, gridlock occurred as competing interests collided. The fabric of society thus frayed and became irreparably eroded due to rampant individual selfishness. Ultimately, with no central authority, anarchy flourished.  This is the picture of pre-Deluge humanity which till today remains a model of societal failure.

The next great era was a response to the prior. The age of corruption and thievery was washed away by the powerful waves of the Flood.  A sense of tranquility and brotherhood reigned as all put aside their personal agendas  to rally around a  symbol of unified strength and common goals. A tower would be built to correct the problems associated with the chaotic past. Thus a king arose who herded everyone together. An iron curtain was created to hem humanity into a single location and the Tower of Babel became the showpiece of  man’s new spirit of cooperation. Yet this experiment in creating the paradigm  of what a community  should be  disintegrated and  toppled like a house of cards. Why?

Interestingly enough, not one person is mentioned by name in the recording of that event. Instead we are informed that, “Come let us build a city and a tower with its head in the heavens and let us make a name for ourselves. The achievement and the accolades were for the group. Individual identities were to be rendered meaningless and merged automatically with the purposes dictated by the whole.  Our Sages expressed it this way: when a brick fell down people agonized because of the lost material, but when a person died in the process of building they carried on without acknowledgment.                                                                    

These two stages in human development represent the ongoing human dilemma. When the individual enjoys unfettered freedom and society places supreme value on personal happiness, then lawlessness prevails and the goals of humanity as a whole are frustrated. Conversely, when society is all-powerful the individual suffers. All his personal ambitions are squelched  his talents are sacrificed, and his liberties are repressed for the sake of the state made holy above all.                                                        

What then is more important? The individual or the society! Is this not the  the debate of every political election? Is this not the argument that has worried us since 9/11 as we try to  balance security with personal liberty? And is this not the cause of much of the struggle in the world today?                        

The answer is simple and difficult. The answer is Abraham, the Jew. After the dispersion of the Tower builders, the first patriarch appears on the Biblical horizon. How does Abraham’s life show us the solution? Because even with the Torah’s focus on one person and his extraordinary accomplishments, it does not mean that the pendulum has swung back to a time when selfish individuals occupy center stage. Neither is Abraham who is called and revered by his neighbors as, “The Most High, Maker of heaven and earth” a megalomaniacal tyrant. But if Abraham’s life is not either extreme, neither is it the healthy compromise of the two. The answer is a radical departure: An existence that does not include selfishness or dictatorship, but rather a life of service.  Because a society of Abraham-like people would produce a qualitatively different world order that would address everyone’s private needs as well as the general public.

How can such service oriented individuals be produced and how can they appreciate that they too would benefit? Listen to the following story. The saintly Chofetz Chaim once softly rebuked two students who came late to class one day. It was not the lateness that was the issue. Each had retrieved a chair after realizing that all seats in the room were occupied. The Chofetz Chaim pointed out to them the lost opportunity. If each would have gotten a chair for the other, both would have had a chair and both would have had an act of kindliness. This was the principle of thoughtfulness and kindness exhibited by Abraham. It was this new order upon which our Jewish heritage and communities were built!

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