- Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald
Noah 5780-2019: The Vital Importance of Truthful Judgment
- Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald
- Oct 27, 2019
(Updated and Revised from Noah 5760-1999)
There is a fascinating and enlightening narrative recorded in Genesis 11, of this week’s parasha, parashat Noah. It is generally known as the tale of the Tower of Babel, or the account of the dispersion of humankind.
The parasha relates that at that time, all of the people on Earth spoke one language and were of a common purpose. When they migrated from the East, they found a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there. They said to one another (Genesis 11:3), “Come let us make bricks and burn them in fire.”
Clearly, this was a technologically precocious society that had developed a number of innovative technological developments. Unfortunately, the people were carried away by their talents and their hubris.
Until those recent discoveries, ancient homes were always built out of mud bricks. Because of the mud bricks’ instability, buildings could not be built very high. The technological innovation of the people of Shinar changed all this. They proceeded to burn and glaze the mud bricks, making them solid and firm. With the addition of clay that served as mortar, the people of Shinar could now proceed to build the world’s first skyscraper.
The Torah, in Genesis 11:4, records the people saying to one another: “Come let us build a city and tower, with its top in heaven, and let us make a name for ourselves lest we be dispersed across the whole earth.”
According to the Midrash, Pirkei d’Rav Eliezer 24:7, the people of Shinar literally worshiped their own technological innovations to such an extent that, during the construction of the tower, if a brick fell and was smashed, they would call a halt to building for seven days and “sit shiva.” They would weep and say: “Woe on us! Where will we get another brick to replace it?” But, if a construction worker fell off the tower and was killed, they would remain indifferent. Of course, in our own day and age, we see how very often technology takes precedence over human life as well.
We learn from the Biblical text that the Al-mighty was not happy with the tower. In fact, Genesis 11:5 records, וַיֵּרֶד השׁם לִרְאֹת אֶת הָעִיר וְאֶת הַמִּגְדָּל , And G-d descended to look at the tower which the sons of man had built. The text (Genesis 11:6-7) goes on to report that G-d said: “Behold they are one people with one language for all, and this is what they begin to do, and now should it not be withheld from them all they propose to do? Come let us descend and confuse their language, that they should not understand one another’s language.”
Why was G-d unhappy? According to the Midrashic interpretation, Midrash Rabbah, (Genesis 38:6 and 10), the intention of the people of the Tower of Babel was to build a tower that would challenge G-d’s authority. In response to this challenge, G-d proceeds to confound the people’s language so they will no longer be capable of building. One person asked for a brick, and another responded by throwing a hammer at his head. Because of the confusion, the building had to stop. The people were dispersed over the face of the earth, which according to the Bible is the origin of diverse human languages.
Of all the books known to humankind, certainly the Torah, the Five Books of Moses, more than any other document, has revolutionized the human’s conception of G-d. Until the time of the Torah, human beings subscribed to a pagan and primitive perception of G-d, usually in the form of the sun, the moon, a tree, or a stone. The Torah revolutionized the world by teaching that the Al-mighty G-d is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent, without form or shape. Nevertheless, in the Tower of Babel episode, the Torah does not hesitate to describe G-d in thoroughly anthropomorphic terms. וַיֵּרֶד השׁם לִרְאֹת , “and G-d came down to see the city and the tower which the sons of man had built.” This statement contradicts everything the Torah presumes to teach. After all, an omniscient G-d doesn’t need to come down!
Could this statement possibly be the result of some sloppy editing which resulted in some unseemly references of some earlier editors? Surely, the Torah frequently uses anthropomorphic terms: G-d saw, G-d heard, G-d spoke. But, to state that “G-d came down” is inappropriate for a document that purports to teach the omniscience of G-d.
And, if this were not enough, in parashat Vayeira, which will be read in two weeks, we find a similar reference. We learn of the wicked people of Sodom, the worst people on the face of the earth, and clearly deserving of destruction. Genesis 18:20-21 reads: וַיֹּאמֶר השׁם, זַעֲקַת סְדֹם וַעֲמֹרָה כִּי רָבָּה . Because the outcry of Sodom and Gomorrah has become so great, and because their sin has been very grave, אֵרְדָה נָּא וְאֶרְאֶה הַכְּצַעֲקָתָהּ הַבָּאָה אֵלַי עָשׂוּ כָּלָה, וְאִם לֹא, אֵדָעָה . “I,” says G-d, “will descend and see if they act in accordance with its outcry which has come to Me–then destruction! And if not, I will know.” According to the Talmud, Sanhedrin 109b, the people of Sodom were not just evil–they had institutionalized wickedness: vice was virtue, and virtue had become vice. Because of the city’s immense wealth, the residents passed a law that no impoverished people could reside in Sodom. In fact, one of the popular sports was to watch as the poor died of starvation.
The Midrash, Pirkei d’Rav Eliezer, 25, records that the Sodom “Federal Bureau of Investigation” was keeping an eye on a particular emaciated man who was dying of hunger. When they suddenly noticed that he was no longer dying, they suspected that someone was feeding him. They soon discovered that Pelotit, the daughter of Lot, was secreting food to him. After she was apprehended, she was sentenced to be burned alive at the stake. According to the Midrash, Yalkut Shimoni, Genesis 83, the Hebrew word found in Genesis 18:21, הַכְּצַעֲקָתָהּ —“ha’k’tza’ah’ka’ta,” her cry–-refers to the girl screaming for her life. G-d says, “I will hear the cries of this woman, and if they are legitimate, then I will destroy Sodom, and if not I will know.”
As in the story of the Tower of Babel, once again we encounter the same troubling concept of G-d “coming down.” Is G-d hard of hearing? Is He so near-sighted that He does not know what is going on without coming down?! An omniscient G-d would surely know.
From both of these troublesome references we learn a basic lesson about Torah. While the Torah is certainly a history book, and certainly a philosophical tome, it is primarily meant to serve as a guide to ethical and moral living. Hence, whenever there is a conflict between an ethical truth and a philosophical truth, the ethical truth prevails!
Consequently, the Torah is not so concerned that skeptics may say, “What’s going on here, I thought that the Hebrew G-d was omniscient? How then could the Torah say that G-d comes down?” The reason for this unusual description is that by describing Himself as having to come down, G-d is able to teach an ethical lesson that is even more important than the philosophical/theological concepts of omniscience and omnipotence. Of course, G-d does not have to come down, He knows exactly who is sinful and who is innocent. But, by depicting Himself as coming down, G-d shows His uncompromising concern for truthfulness and correctness in judgment. If G-d, so to speak, has to come down, to check the guilt of the people of Babel or the people of Sodom–the most wicked people on the face of the earth, then mortal judges of flesh and blood, when they sit in judgment of their brothers and sisters, must make absolutely certain that no effort is spared to uncover the absolute truth!
Unbelievable as it might seem, more important than teaching the lessons of G-d’s omniscience and omnipotence, is the lesson of proper judgment! That is the primary lesson of the Torah. That is the purpose of all of G-d’s teachings.
How fortunate are we, the people of Israel, to be designated with the honor of being the emissaries of the Al-mighty’s extraordinary teachings and messages!
May you be blessed.
In the narrative of the Tower of Babel, the Bible depicts a would-be omniscient G-d as having to come down to see the city and the tower that the people had built. If G-d is truly omniscient, why should He have to come down; surely He knows of the wickedness of the people? The Torah is faced with a daunting challenge: Are moral lessons more important than theological truths?