“You’re going down!”
These fighting words are often uttered by prize pugilists, or other athletes and competitors, when predicting victory over their adversary.
But the Midrash Pirkei d’Rebbe Eliezer (chapters 24-25) claims that the Torah explicitly describes 3 times Hashem descended to earth.* The first two took place during the construction of the Tower of Bavel and the third appears in our parsha, prior to God’s destruction of S’dom and her suburbs.
Here they are in the order presented by the Pirkei d’Rebbe Eliezer.
"הָ֚בָה נֵֽרְדָ֔ה וְנָבְלָ֥ה שָׁ֖ם שְׂפָתָ֑ם אֲשֶׁר֙ לֹ֣א יִשְׁמְע֔וּ אִ֖ישׁ שְׂפַ֥ת רֵעֵֽהוּ׃" (בראשית י"א:ז)
Let us, then, go down and confound their speech there, so that they shall not understand one another’s speech.” (Bereshis 11:7).
"ויֵּ֣רֶד יְהוָ֔ה לִרְאֹ֥ת אֶת־הָעִ֖יר וְאֶת־הַמִּגְדָּ֑ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר בָּנ֖וּ בְּנֵ֥י הָאָדָֽם׃" (בראשית י"א:ה)
“The LORD came down to look at the city and tower that man had built” (Bereshis 11:5)
"ארֲדָה־נָּ֣א וְאֶרְאֶ֔ה הַכְּצַעֲקָתָ֛הּ הַבָּ֥אָה אֵלַ֖י עָשׂ֣וּ ׀ כָּלָ֑ה וְאִם־לֹ֖א אֵדָֽעָה׃" (בראשית י"ח:כ"א)
“I will go down to see whether they have acted altogether according to the outcry that has reached Me; if not, I will take note.” (Bereshis 18:21)
Why did Pirkei d’Rebbe Eliezer enumerate these three ‘descents’ out of order, and why is it significant that Hashem went down a few times?
First question first. It seems clear that first the Midrash relates that Hashem said, “Let us go down.” The question is asked, who is “us”? Who will be escorting God to see the tower of Bavel? Even Ibn Ezra, known for always remaining in proximity to the plain meaning of the text (pshat), agrees that the “us” can only refer to Hashem and his coterie of angels. Rashi adds that God bringing his entourage with Him speaks to God’s trait of humility. Since the subject of the first of the three ‘descents’ is first person plural, I imagine it was included first. The latter two verses teach us something else. In the second of the verses, Hashem descends to witness the tower being built by Nimrod and the citizens of Bavel. In the third verse, Hashem leaves His heavenly abode to witness the vice of the citizens of S’dom. Rashi makes similar comments in both cases. God’s decision to personally visit “dens of iniquity” is meant to model proper behavior for judges. A judge should always examine the evidence by himself, and not rely on secondary sources or reports (based on Midrash Tanchuma18). Furthermore, Me’am Loez (based upon a Midrash Tanchuma and Rashi) argues that God only declared “good” the days of Creation until He “saw it.”
But the Rashi regarding S’dom adds a second explanation. “Going down” can connote seeing how a process will end. Rashi’s first answer refers to past or current misbehavior. It is an attempt to confirm the malevolence. Rashi’s second answer, (also advanced by the Malbim) which can only apply to the Judge of all Judges, means that God looks into the future to confirm that those guilty will not repent or transform themselves. This cannot apply to a human judge.
A third school of thought (Oznayim l’Torah, Rabbi Chaim Volozhiner) suggests that HASHEM’s “field trip” down to earth is meant to inspire mankind. Similarly, the Netziv argues that God’s descent was meant to shift from fate premised upon the laws of nature to a world governed via Divine providence, hashgaha pratis. It is better for humankind when God “Himself” comes down to investigate transgression and invoke punishment, rather than allowing the world’s affairs to be determined by fate and the laws of nature.
It’s difficult to say that we can learn behaviors from the Almighty. The gap between the Infinite and the mortal is itself infinite. But Rashi teaches that we indeed must do exactly that.
So what are we to take from these interpretations on these verses describing God’s personal oversight of the world?
First, we are to judge fairly, based upon evidence and individualized circumstances. I recently read an article about Rabbi Nissim Kareletz, zt’l, who recently passed away. Rav Kareletz set up a very sophisticated and renowned Bais Din (Jewish Court of Law) in the Israeli city of B’nai Brak, which serves a very large religious audience. To show the seriousness with which Rav Kareletz’s Bais Din functioned, the following story was related. The tenants in an apartment building brought suit against a falafel shop which also rented space from the apartment building. The tenants claimed that the walls of their homes reeked from the odors of a fast-food establishment, and sought to either receive damages, or for the Bais Din to compel the owner to break the lease with the falafel shop. During the hearing, it became evident that the judges had examined the walls of the tenants’ homes in question, and they had exercised both their senses of smell and taste, to determine, that indeed, the walls of the homes had been damaged by the vapors associated with a falafel store, and compelled the owner to evict the store, due to the damage he was causing to the environment of the tenant’s homes. This lesson was learned by Hashem’s dealings with the Tower of Bavel and God’s investigation into the behaviors of the people of S’dom.
Second, we cannot know how future events will unfold. Only God can know that. Humans are limited, and can’t know the product of prospective measures. But, as our sages point out, wisdom can be defined as the act of contemplating the outcome of our actions. Who is wise? Haro’eh es ha’nolad. While we can’t convict based upon assumptions, an honest person should at least reserve judgment until personal investigation has been undertaken.
Finally, investing the effort to take people seriously and to research claims with integrity, elevates people. Taking people’s humanity seriously can be one of the kindnesses one human being can do for another. When someone feels helpless and hopeless, knowing that someone of power acts in the image of the Divine to take them and their life seriously can be the height of kindness and loving one’s fellow.
The Midrash claims that God personally came down to earth on several occasions (three or ten). We are to learn from these events, to take what is down on earth and elevate it to a more Godly station. Only very special individuals such as Moshe, during his lifetime, and Eliyahu Hanavi, upon his death, are described explicitly as ascending to heaven. But we can bring heaven to earth by engaging others with integrity, dignity and sensitivity. Hashem even extended this privilege to individuals acting poorly.
May we always endeavor to act in a Godly way, towards others!
In sports, we may want others to go down, but in life, we should pray to go up!
At the end of the parsha, we see Rashi (22:11) actually say this. Hashem reiterates that he did not command Avraham to slaughter his son. Rather, he told him to "bring him up" (Ibid. verse 2). "You have brought him up. Now take him down."
HASHEM comes down to lift up. Avraham passed the greatest challenge to mortal man by going up. After he passed, he came down.
* Another source in Pirkei d’Rebbe Eliezer (chapter 14), identifies 10 descents, although most are not mentioned in the text. They are: God “walking through the Garden of Eden,” God’s descent to see the Tower of Bavel, God’s descent to witness the city of S’dom’s wickedness, God’s appearance at the Burning Bush, God’s Revelation at Sinai, two when God revealed His essence to Moshe, two in the Mishkan (Tabernacle), and one reserved for the Messianic era. A midrash (Bereshis Rabbah,49:6) in the name of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, also identifies HASHEM’s descent to S’dom .