Noach 5779 – A Stairway to Heaven

By: Dr. Bill Sutker

Parashah Noach begins and ends with two great events: the flood in the beginning, Babel and its tower at the end. On the face of it, they have nothing in common. The failings of the generation of the flood are explicit. Babel, by contrast, seems almost idyllic.

After the flood, man again began to multiply and fill the earth. Everyone spoke one language understood one another. Generations of people before the flood had been interested only in themselves; they thought of themselves as supermen and each one lived for himself alone; they used violence and force against their weaker neighbors, paying no attention to laws and rules. The new generation of mankind after the flood was different. They stressed the opposite code of living. The individual did not count for himself; he counted only as part of the community, and he had to align his own interests to those of the group. Had they confined themselves to this kind of social life, all might have been well. But they over did it. The tremendous strength that grew out of their organization made them proud, but their overblown pride made them turn against God.

The people crowned Nimrod as their King and he essentially became king of the entire population of the earth. Nimrod said:” let us build a tower so high that its top will reach the heavens and let us make a name for ourselves.”  The builders were bent on construction, not destruction. They learned how to make strong bricks because there was no stone available.

The people thought that if they built a tower to reach to heaven, it would make them equal to God, and at the same time, to make it possible for them to stay together in one geographical area in the land of Shinear.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks notes that despite their seemingly good intentions, from the Torah’s point of view, Babel represents another serious wrong turn, because immediately thereafter God summons Abraham to begin an entirely new chapter in the religious story of humankind. These events of the flood and Babel are depicted because they represent a profound moral – social – political – spiritual truth about the human situation as the Torah sees it. The flood tells us what happened to civilization when individuals rule and there is no collective. Babel tells us what happened when the collective rules and individuals are sacrificed to it.

Catholic writer Paul Johnson said:” there have been, in the course of history, societies that have emphasized the individual –like before the flood, like the secular West today. And there have been others that placed weight on the collective – like the people of Babel, or now like Communist Russia or China, for example. Judaism, he continued, was the most successful example he knew that managed the delicate balance between the two, giving equal weight to individual and collective responsibility. Judaism was his religion of strong individuals and strong unities. This, he said, was very rare and difficult, and constitutes one of Judaism’s greatest achievements.

The results of human behavior are often the opposite of what was intended. The builders of Babel wanted to concentrate humanity in one place with one language. As mentioned, they wanted to make a name for themselves by building a tower to reach to heaven. This was the world’s first totalitarian regime, in which to preserve the masses as a single entity, all freedom of expression was suppressed. They became intoxicated by their own technical prowess of creating strong bricks. The builders were so fanatical in their desire to complete the tower that when a brick fell and broke, they lamented:” how hard will it be to replace it.” But when a person slipped and fell to his death, no one looked upon him or cared. The builders of Babel believed they had become like gods and could construct their own miniature universe. This was the beginning of the end for the tower of Babel.

God became angry with the inhabitants of Babel for several reasons:

First, they were being disobedient by settling in one place instead of multiplying and filling the earth as God commanded.  Second, they were being prideful, which was considered a wicked sin. They were so bent on pride, and so consumed by it that they wanted to create a monumental skyscraper to show off just how good they were. Third, the fact that they wanted to ignore God and make a name for themselves reveals that they were already committing idolatry by worshiping themselves.

God decided to destroy their arrogance by destroying their ability to understand one another. He confused people by splitting them into 70 nations and tribes, scattering them over the face of the earth. Each had its own language and no longer understood one another. Hence, the name Babel became the symbol of confusion.

I have told you that the pride of the Babylonians was one of the factors that ultimately destroyed them.  It begs the question:  Is pride a good thing or a bad thing?  Leon Seltzer writes:  I’ve always regarded pride is a healthy human trait, linking it favorably to self-motivation, confidence, respect, and acceptance. But the Bible views it differently, labeling it as one of the seven deadly sins. So is there a good pride and a bad pride or does pride exist along a continuum – as in, pride is positive up to a certain level, but beyond that it becomes malignant as we saw in the story of the tower of Babel.

Pride is a personality characteristic that can be deemed healthy (or, is often designated as true, authentic, or genuine), versus the form of pride regularly viewed as unhealthy (or false, bad, arrogant, or hubristic). There are marked differences between healthy and unhealthy pride.

Healthy, or good pride is about self-confidence, reflecting a can-do attitude. It motivates one to become better every day. Unhealthy, or bad pride also is about trying to succeed but these individuals are abnormally driven to succeed.  They struggle with self-doubt and a feeling of shame.  Healthy pride represents a positive notion of self-worth. People with healthy pride are not satisfied with a mediocre performance; they strive to do their best. People with unhealthy pride have an overly favorable evaluation of self, based on giving oneself too much credit for accomplishments which may be rather modest. People with healthy pride feel good about themselves. Such pride is associated with a high, though not artificially high, self-esteem. People with unhealthy pride have an elevated self-regard which is bogus and covers for insecurity. People with healthy pride have strong egos whereas people with unhealthy pride have big egos. People with healthy pride have a quiet, self-assured affirmation of their capabilities. People with unhealthy pride are more aggressive – there is a declaration of personal superiority. They look down on others or put them down. Healthy pride leads to more satisfying and fulfilling relationships. These people prefer to work with others. They are affable and agreeable. Those individuals with unhealthy pride are usually dogmatic, dictatorial, and defensive. Healthy pride has nothing to do with comparing oneself to others but people with unhealthy pride regularly brag about their exaggerated accomplishments. For them it is not about doing their best but doing things better than anyone else. Healthy pride is authentic – is an accurate, realistic estimate of one’s abilities. People with unhealthy pride have exaggerated or distorted claims about their capabilities which leads to bragging, arrogance and deceit. People with healthy pride are frequently successful whereas people with  unhealthy pride frequently fail. People with healthy pride motivate and inspire others and share their successes. People with unhealthy pride try to control others. They don’t want to share successes. Healthy pride, unlike the unhealthy variety, is not egocentric. And that is why those with healthy pride can take pride not just in their own accomplishments but in those of others as well. They can be proud of their children, their spouse, parents, friends, students. They are proud of anyone who has struggled to overcome an impediment, or who made sacrifices in an all-out effort to do something remarkable.  Is there anything wrong with that?  Not at all.  In fact, it is a good thing.  The pride demonstrated in the story of Babel was clearly an example of the unhealthy kind.

One has to wonder in today’s world:  Have we forgotten the lessons and consequences of the flood and Babel?  We frequently hear of people killing other people for no reason.  Nowhere seems to be safe -not schools or concerts or malls or other public places.  We have world leaders as well as US politicians who demonstrate unhealthy pride and seem only interested in advancing their own agendas, forgetting about we, the people, whom they are supposed to represent.

Rabbi Sacks notes that the flood and the tower of Babel, though polar opposites, are linked, and the entire parashah of Noah is a brilliant study in the human condition. There were individualistic cultures and there were collective ones, both failed, the former because they lead to anarchy and violence, the latter because they lead to oppression and tyranny. After the two great failures of the flood and Babel, Abraham was called on to create a new form of social order that would give honor to the individual and the collective, personal responsibility and the common good. That remains the special gift of Jews and Judaism to the world.