“Making a Name for Ourselves”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Noah, contains a plethora of fascinating narratives.

The most famous story recorded in this week’s parasha is the biblical account of the Flood, but there are other stories as well, and even within the saga of Noah there are many thrilling subplots.

Parashat Noah opens with a description of the personality of Noah. This is followed by a depiction of the corruption of Noah’s contemporaries, the building of the ark, the housing of the animals, the flood, the test for dry land, and the aftermath of the flood. After leaving the ark, Noah builds an altar and offers up thanks to G-d. The Al-mighty promises never to destroy the world again, a promise that is confirmed by the appearance of the rainbow. Noah plants a vineyard, gets drunk, curses his son Ham, and his grandson, Canaan.

The Torah then records the names of the descendants of Noah, who, according to rabbinic tradition, represent the 70 nations of the world who will emerge from them. This is followed by the fascinating story of the Tower of Babel and the dispersion of the world’s population. The parasha concludes with a listing of the 10 generations from Noah to Abram and the birth of Abram.

Each one of these rich accounts could easily be expanded to fill many chapters, perhaps even volumes.

The broad and rich content of parashat Noah is indeed noteworthy. The entire fascinating story of the Tower of Babel appears in Genesis 11 as a mere “sidebar” and is related in nine brief verses.

The Bible introduces the story of the Tower of Babel by noting that, at that time, all people spoke a common language. The people, who migrated from the east, find a valley in the land of Shinar and settle there. The Torah (Genesis 11:3) records that the people say to one another, “Ha’vah nil’b’nah l’vay’nim v’nis’r’fah lis’ray’fah,” Come, let us make bricks and burn them in fire. These bricks serve as stone and the clay serves as mortar. The inhabitants of Shinar are again quoted as saying (Genesis 11:4), “Hah’vah niv’neh lah’noo eer ooh’mig’dahl, v’ro’shoh va’shah’ma’yim, v’nah’ah’seh lah’noo shaym,” Come, let us build us 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.

The Bible states that upon beholding the people’s actions, G-d descended from heaven, looked down at the city and the tower that the people had built and concluded that the peoples’ unity and common language enabled them to scheme against G-d. The Al-mighty then decides to confuse (Babel) the people’s language so that they would not understand one another’s speech.

G-d then disperses the people, halting the building of the city. The place was called Babel, because it was there that G-d confounded (baval) the language of the whole earth, and from there, the Lord G-d scattered the people over the face of the whole earth.

It is hard to believe that after the flood, people continued to rebel and behave wickedly. Before the flood, we learn of the many nefarious actions of the people: Cain killed Abel, and Lemach cried out that he has slain a man for wounding him, and a young man for bruising him (Genesis 4:23). The Bible clearly states (Genesis 6:11) that the earth was corrupt before G-d, and was filled with violence. G-d punished the evil people with the flood. Only Noah, and those who were with him in the Ark, remained alive (Genesis 7:22-23).

It hardly seems plausible that, after the monumental destruction of all humanity, the post-diluvian generation had not learned a lesson. Yet we see that the builders of the Tower of Babel were intent on challenging G-d’s authority.

Now it may very well be that the builders wanted to make certain that the “gods” would not punish them again with a flood, but that is not what the people themselves say. Their technological prowess, the ability to create bricks and mortar, enabling them to build even in areas where there were no stones, led them to profound hubris, which is reflected in their statement (Genesis 11:4): Let us build a city and a tower whose top will reach to heaven and let us make us a name.

The late, great Professor Nehama Leibowitz points out that the true purpose of the awe-inspiring monuments that are enabled by the technical skills and creative prowess of man “is to make the human being forget his insignificance and transientness,” and to delude himself with his own greatness and “immortality.”

Nehama Leibowitz writes:

Gigantic buildings and pyramids, marble monuments, impressive squares have always served as the means by which a great dictator has wished to perpetuate and aggrandize his name, likening himself to a god, overcoming through them his feelings of inferiority and through them trying to transcend the inescapable fact of his mortality.

Citing Professor Umberto Cassuto, Professor Leibowitz points out that although there are parallel stories to the flood in Babylonian literature, there are absolutely no parallels to the story of the Tower of Babel to be found in the whole of ancient Babylonian and Near-Eastern literature.

The reason for that absence, claims Professor Cassuto, is that the Torah’s story of the Tower of Babel is really a protest story against the hubris and arrogance of the ancient Babylonians, as well as the people of the Near East who saw pyramids, buildings and monuments as a thing of beauty and glory in their eyes.

Nehama Leibowitz writes:

The story of the building of the Tower of Babel has timeless application. Not only in ancient times and in one particular generation has man striven to build a tower with its top in heaven, but in every age, whenever technical achievements reach new heights of perfection, we witness a repetition.

Science and technology have the ability to deceive the human being into thinking that he/she is the ultimate force, the ultimate source of creativity, the ultimate creator.

The Midrash, in Bereshit Raba 38:7, in the name of Elazar ben Simeon, explains that the true implication of the verse (Genesis 11:2) that states that, “the people journeyed from the east, and found a plain in the land of Shinar, and settled there,” is that “They [the people] journeyed away from the First of the World [G-d].” They said, “Neither Him nor His divinity.”

The people, who were clearly creative and inventive, became so full of themselves that they dismissed the possibility of there being any other powers in the world, strongly denying that they were dependent upon others and, of course, even the Divine.

In 1811, the great English poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822), published an insightful sonnet, entitled Ozymandius, that poignantly captures the human condition of hubris.

I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert… Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal these words appear:
My name is Ozymandius, King of Kings,
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Like Ozymandius, the story of the Tower of Babel is indeed timeless. As we approach new scientific frontiers and breach new, undreamed of, scientific barriers, we uncover secrets and forces that no one could have possibly imagined.

These forces can be unleashed for the greater benefit of humankind or for great evil. The key factor in determining whether these new forces will be utilized for good or for evil is very likely the question of whether human beings are willing to recognize their dependence upon a Creator, and acknowledge their mortality and limitedness.

However, if humankind declares arrogantly (Isaiah 47:8 and 10), “Ah’nee v’ahf’see ohd,” I am the ultimate power and there are no other powers beside me, then we are very likely preparing ourselves for another inundation, another flood, and another cycle of destruction.

May we indeed make for ourselves a name through our good works and kind and noble deeds.

May you be blessed.