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Parashat 10/26/2011

Parashat Noach

Submitted by Robert Rabinoff


And [Gd] scattered them from there. (11:9)

Which [generation] was worse – the generation of the Flood or the generation of the Dispersion.  This one [the latter] did not stretch out their hands to root out faith in Gd and to make war against Him, and that one [the former] did stretch out their hands to root out faith in Gd and to make war against Him!  Yet that one was swept away [in the Flood] while this one was not lost from this world.  [Why is this?]  But the Generation of the Flood were thieves and there was always conflict among them, therefore they were lost.  But these conducted themselves with neighborly love and friendship with one another, as it says: “With one language and unified speech.”  This teaches how hated are conflict and controversy, and how beloved is peace.  (Rashi ad. loc.)

In the beginning of our Parashah the justification for the Flood is given: the earth was full of hamas (6:11).  The Hebrew word hamas is variously translated as violence or robbery (both of which fit well with the nature of the contemporary terrorist group of the same name).  In fact, our Sages take the position that robbery is a particularly pernicious form of violence; it can and does condemn the victim to a slow and painful death when it is continual and systemic.  On the physical side if one cannot support himself and there is no social safety net, he and his family will starve.  On the psychological level, living day in and day out as a victim of a corrupt society, corrupt laws and corrupt law enforcement gradually can drive one insane; living falsehood is impossible, as anyone who has ever lived in a totalitarian society can attest.


Rashi goes on to point out that the Generation of the Flood’s violence stemmed from a deeper problem – controversy (machloket).  Now we learn in Pirke Avot (5:20) that not all controversy is bad: controversy “for the sake of Heaven” will endure – that is, the results are of lasting value.  The example given is the disputes of Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai.  Each academy had a different approach to the truth, but both were focused on the truth.  But any controversy that is “not for the sake of Heaven” – that is, one driven by personal agendas, will not last.  In fact, it will end with the destruction of the participants, and very likely will have “collateral damage.”  The example given in Pirke Avot is “the controversy of Korach and his associates.”  Note that the Mishnah does not say the controversy between Korach and Moshe!  Rather it was the controversy of Korach and his band, all of whom had their individual agendas, and all of whom ended up utterly destroyed.


We see examples both in Tanach and in our own recent history for the efficacy of social unity in protecting society and allowing it to progress, and the destructive effects of disunity.  In Torah we have the examples in our Parashah.  In addition, our Sages hold the reign of Ahab as an example of unity leading to success.  Ahab was one of the most evil, idolatrous kings of the Northern Kingdom, and nemesis of the Prophet Eliyahu.  Yet Israel was routinely successful in its wars and in its internal affairs, because, the Sages tell us, people acted lovingly with one another.  And finally, the Torah was revealed at Mt. Sinai only when the entire nation was united “as one man with one heart” (Rashi).


One only need compare the conduct and the outcome of the Second World War with the Vietnam War to see the same phenomenon.  During WW II the country was united behind the war effort, convinced that it was both just and necessary.  This was the result of two factors: First, the war was just and necessary.  Second, President Roosevelt spent considerable time and energy getting American public opinion behind him (with some help from the Japanese of course).  Contrast that to the prosecution of the Vietnam War – the government routinely lied to the American people, and never made a convincing case that we should be sacrificing American lives and money for some abstract notion of containment.  The result was ever-escalating controversy at home which at times turned violent, and it vitiated the entire war effort.  Perhaps worse, Americans’ distrust of their government has never been overcome.


It is unfortunate that the level of civil discourse in our country has degenerated to the point that violence, demeaning speech, ad hominem attacks, character assassination (“Swiftboating”) and out-and-out lying (“death panels”) have become the norm rather than an embarrassing aberration.  Our political discourse has ceased to be directed towards the truth, or trying to find solutions to our problems.  Controversies are created for personal profit and we waste precious time and energy holding ourselves aloof from our fellows, rather than working together to create positive outcomes.  It should be clear that continuation of this kind of behavior is likely to see us swept away in a flood of negativity, if not physically destroyed by either natural or man-made disasters.


Fortunately, controversy that is not for the sake of Heaven does not endure.  There is an ultimate unifying force in the universe which can overcome and harmonize all differences, as it says: On that Day H” will be One and His Name will be One.  The only question is how much He will have to destroy in order to create that unity.  I believe the answer to that question is in our hands.  We may not be in a position, like a political leader, to influence the entire world.  But we can always influence our immediate environment.  If we each consistently act in a manner that creates harmony, eventually that will spread.  Every drop of water in a cloud started out as a microscopic seed droplet that grew to macroscopic size.  Who is mighty?  He who controls himself.  Think about the Flood next time you find yourself getting embroiled in an argument.