Parshat Noah

After the flood, Hashem presses the restart button with Noah and his family, promising never to do the same again, Hashem then faces a new challenge when the people get together to build a tower to reach the heaven –the tower of Babel. The incident is described briefly in nine sentences with only hints of what danger Hashem perceived in their plan. In fact the Torah describes that figuratively Hashem came down to try and figure out their intentions. Several of our 19th century sages, also living in times of change, ponder on the story with interesting insights into the behaviour of society.

Rav S R Hirsch explains that there was basically nothing wrong with the getting together and building the tower, but Hashem wanted to understand what next and what kind of society they wanted to build and he notes what they say “come let us build a city and a tower that reaches the heaven and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed across the earth.” In Rav Hirsch’s opinion the leadership intends a dual challenge, firstly against the Almighty to create a uniform controlled society where they, and not Hashem, create the rules and more importantly no room for individualism and freedom of thought. This is the intention of saying let us make a name for ourselves that everyone knows who is in charge. Hirsch sees the leadership viewing the tower as the objective, rather than the means for creating a better society, nationalism itself being the objective, an almost frightening prediction of the Nazi regime.

The Netziv similarly views the generation of the tower of Babel wanting to create a dictatorial regimented regime which closely monitors the people and punishing anyone who disagrees. He seemed to be predicting the rise of communism which came soon after his time in Russia.

Perhaps the modern parallel is politicians, who in their desire to get elected promise us a new and better life, which is easy to say but much more difficult to achieve in reality. Sadly maybe that is what is attracting the younger generation in Britain to the views of Jeremy Corbyn of a new “fairer society.”

The Malbim explains that Hashem became aware of the nasty intentions of the powerful few, who wished to dominate, but saw there were many hard working good folk and so avoided the possibility of the few creating a dictatorship and immediately after this, on seeing Avraham’s potential, tells him to move away in order to create a new society. However more than that the Torah wants to show us how from the one Noahite family we find his descendants scattering around the globe and speaking so many diverse languages in such a short time after the flood, and he even notes that in his time many different ancient inscriptions were found in such completely different language structures which he believes could not have happen naturally.

In a more spiritual view, the Sfat Emet sees Hashem wishing to protect his holy Hebrew language from being used universally and deciding to preserve the power of this holy language to be used only by a special nation, who were yet to appear on the scene. The Sfat Emet expresses his awe at the power of our holy language that has kept us united despite being spread to all corners of the world.

I recently heard a lecture on the changes in society caused by the spread of the smartphone. Many young people do not talk anymore and when facing an online problem we are encouraged to use the chat rather than call, and alternatively we are usually directed to India, the Philippines or recently Jamaica. The newest fastest spreading international language is the “emoji” and this kind of messaging has become so common that the Oxford Dictionary named the “face with tears of joy” emoji as the word of the year in 2015.

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