Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Parashat Noah 5762/ October 20, 2001
"You Have Made Him Little Less than Divine"
Rabbi Yitzhak Kraus
We actually know very little about the beginnings of mankind, but the Torah does provide us some details about its early history. The Rabbis in Avot (5,2) saw this history typified in the division of "ten generations from Adam to Noah" (Gen. 5) and ten more "from Noah to Abraham" (actually, from Seth, see Gen. 11). Parashat Noah covers the history from Noah to Abraham, including two generations that were highly significant for the human race: the generation of the flood and the generation of the tower of Babel. How it is that time and again humanity has failed to fulfill its calling, a failure which these two generations, one from the first group and one from the second, exemplify--to this question the Torah does not give the slightest inkling of a response. The Midrash, however, links the failing of both in this parable:
To what can one compare the people of the flood and the people of the tower of Babel? To a king who had two sons. One of them said to him, "I cannot tolerate you, nor all your demands," and the other said, "It is either you or I." Thus it was that generation of the flood said to G-d, "Leave us alone," etc., and the generation of the flood said, "It is either us or him," as it is written, "Come, let us build us a city." They said, "It is not fair for him to take the upper realms for himself and to leave us the lower. Let us change things around, and take ourselves the upper and let him have the lower. (Tanhuma, Buber edition, Noah 27).
On the face of it, the two brothers represent the same rebellion against the father and the identical fatal flaw: the Midrash reflects on the unique existential condition of human beings within Creation - flesh and blood endowed with the spirit of G-d. This status separates humans from other creatures; human beings are obliged to fulfill G-d's commandments, which do not necessarily accord with their own carnal drives and inclinations.
At the outset, human beings did not recognize their unique status did not accept G-d's sovereignty, as we see in the history of ten generations from Adam to Noah: Adam failed to obey the one command the Lord gave him, Cain and Lemekh committed acts of murder, and this period culminated with the earth being "filled with lawlessness because of them."
This degeneration of the first ten generations is depicted in the Torah at the end of Parashat Bereshit in the harshest terms: "The Lord saw how great was man's wickedness on earth, and how every plan devised by his mind was nothing but evil all the time" (Gen. 6:5). How did humanity sink to such a low level?
The answer lies in the words of the Midrash above: "I cannot tolerate you, nor all your demands." These words of the flood generation represent all the generations that preceded it, that had no interest in assuming the existential supremacy of human beings as "the pinnacle of Creation" (nezer habriah). It was a burden to them, a yoke around their necks that took away the fulfillment of their "free will" as flesh and blood, as expressed by the verse, "They said to G-d, 'Leave us alone, we do not want to learn Your ways'" (Job 21:14).
Contrary to a first reading of the Midrash, which groups both sons together, the generation of the tower of Babel was the antithesis of the generation of the flood. Those who set out to build the tower understood their superiority as the pinnacle of Creation and exploited the advantage humans have over animals - their intellect. The verse, "Everyone on earth had the same language and the same words" (Gen. 11:1), is taken by the Midrash, contrary to the classical interpretation, to express a positive aspect of this generation, as opposed to the generation of the flood: "But the latter, because they loved one another - as it is said, 'Everyone on earth had the same language' - had some survivors" (Genesis Rabbah, Albeck edition, 38). What was their sin? This generation was aware of its superiority over the rest of the creatures, but they were not satisfied with this. As the son in the parable said, "It is either you or I," meaning there can be only one ruler in the world and no more, and that being so, why are we not the ones with dominion? The second ten generations from Noah to Abraham set right the misunderstanding of earlier generations, but as the most supreme of creatures, they still did not understand their role in Creation; their supremacy caused them to rise up against their Creator.
This enables us to understand the relatively light punishment given the generation of the tower of Babel in comparison with the generation of the flood. The generation of the flood, who did not understand the superior gift of human beings over other creatures and who wanted to live like animals, were beyond correction. That was not the case with the generation of the tower of Babel. It is not easy for human beings to find their place as the pinnacle of creation on the one hand, yet subordinate to the Creator on the other hand. Therefore, as long as they had not lost their superiority as human beings, there was hope for their improvement. They were not destroyed, but spread out all over the world to continue human history, humbled by their experience.
Thus, mankind swung between these two extremes for twenty generations. The first person on earth to find the proper balance between the two was the patriarch Abraham. He is described as "standing before the Lord" (Gen. 18:22). To stand before the Lord means that a human being, with full recognition of his superiority, presents himself before the Lord, ready to accept His dominion. Indeed, from his position as the crown of Creation, Abraham was prepared to stand and contend with the Lord, excitedly arguing, "Will you sweep away the innocent along with the guilty? ... Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?" (Gen. 18:25). But recognizing his place in the world as as a creature of G-d, he was swift to obey G-d's behest, "Take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love, ... and offer him ... as a burnt offering" (Gen. 22:2), without protest.