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Parashat Noach 5887 — 10/21/2017

Parashat Noach 5887 — 10/21/2017

Bereshit 6:9-11:32

Come, let us descend and there confuse their language, that they should not understand one another’s language. And Gd dispersed them from there over the face of the earth… (11:7-8)

The story of the Tower of Babel is a bit of a coda to the story of the Flood. It has several similarities, including the fact that the whole of humanity has again gone against Gd’s Will, but the punishment is much more benign – instead of complete destruction, humans have their languages “confused” and they are scattered all over the world, which is what they were trying to prevent by building their Tower in the first place. Abarbanel asks in what way the punishment fits the crime:

The Talmud relates that it was the generation’s intention to ascend into the sky and fight against Gd Himself in the heavenly domain (Sanhedrin 109a). How could they agree to something so ridiculous and clearly impossible? Gd’s reaction should have been derisive laughter, not dispersal and multiple languages.

And if they were demonstrating a fundamental heresy and a denial of Gd’s omnipotence, then the punishment is actually inadequate. Their fate should have been destruction, like that of the generation of the Flood.

He answers that while the generation of the Flood and the generation of the Dispersal were both steeped in materiality, the generation of the Flood had gotten to such a state of depravity that they had affected even the animals (“for all flesh had perverted its way” – all flesh and not just human beings). Further, not only were their actions perverted, but even their thoughts were “only evil all the time,” and if the thoughts are perverted, there is little hope that behavior can be changed. Therefore Gd had no alternative but to wipe everything out and start over with Noach. In the case of the latter generation, Gd was able to nip things in the bud, so to speak, before they got to a state where destruction was the only choice. So far, so good. But why confuse the languages? Why dispersal?

Here Abarbanel makes a very interesting point. He points out that the dispersion/exile that was the Tower generation’s punishment was also the punishment of Adam and Kayin. Adam was in the Garden of Eden, a perfect place for spiritual development. All his material needs were taken care of – in the language of the Sages, a legion of angels fed him and took care of all he needed. Instead of using the opportunity, Adam chose to follow his eyes (“… it was good to look at…”) and his heart (“… and desirable as a means to wisdom…” Gen 3:6) and was banished from the Garden. Incidentally, the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil was focused on distinctions, and distinctions are the realm of the intellect. Adam substituted his intellect for Gd’s Will, with disastrous consequences. I will return to this point shortly.

In the case of Kayin and Hevel (Cain and Abel) we have a situation where a farmer (Kayin), who is a tool-user (plow, scythe, flail, winnowing fan), fought with a shepherd (Hevel), which Abarbanel identifies as a more natural lifestyle (that of the Patriarchs), divorced from the urban, technological society of Kayin. Kayin too is ousted from his home and forced to become a nomad. Here a technological lifestyle, where humans use their intellect to manipulate the laws of nature, is contrasted to a “natural” lifestyle, where humans ostensibly just “go with the flow.”

Finally, the generation of the dispersion was perhaps the ultimate (for the time) urban, technological society. They didn’t build from naturally occurring stone; rather they made their own “stones” by making bricks. They built a huge tower so they would have excellent cellular service throughout the region. (Abarbanel doesn’t mention cellular service …) As in the case of Adam and Kayin, they put their intellect to the service of their material desires and the result was they were separated from their environment.

Let’s return to the intellect. The intellect is what distinguishes between one thing and another. As we have noted in previous weeks, the Hebrew word for intellect is binah, which comes from the root bein, “between.” Thus the intellect is a function of, and can only operate in, the world of boundaries – that is, the material world (where we are taking “material” in its broadest sense here, to include the very subtlest levels of manifest creation). The Creation is sometimes called the “World of Division” – perhaps it could just as well be called the “World of Dispersion.” We need the intellect to function in this world – it is necessary to distinguish between different items in creation – food vs. poison for example.

Nevertheless, beyond all the divisions of the material world, there is a level of pure, absolute silence, an absolute unity, not composed of parts. In physics we call this the unified field, and from it come all the particles of the universe and the forces between them. Since there are no divisions in this world, it is impenetrable to the intellect, yet the prophets avow that one can experience it. The practical question every human being since Adam has faced is whether we are going to attach ourselves to Unity and live a life that expresses that Unity, or whether we are going to identify with duality and the intellect. So far it appears that very few people in history have made the former choice.

Technology is intellect-driven action writ large. When we identify ourselves as “tool makers” we identify ourselves as people who use our intellect to control the laws of nature to our own purposes. But since our intellect is limited, such a life is virtually guaranteed to be full of mistakes and unintended consequences. I think what Abarbanel is telling us is that it is better to let the intellect be subservient to our inner Unity, the Unity that is at the basis of all cosmic processes. Then all our action will be in accord with natural law, mistake-free, and we can again have angels waiting on us hand and foot.


Commentary by Steve Sufian

Parashat Noach

In Parshah Noach, our world begins again after Gd destroys its population, all but those in the Ark.

In Beresheit, to me, the world begins again: it is not a new creation. It is another joyful cycle in the infinitely rapidly cycling that is the vibration of Torah, the Liveliness of Gd. Torah and Gd are One.

It is not that there is even a new Creation, Gd is eternally complete: all is already accomplished in Gd. It is only that the Whole of Gd is in every point of Gd and that at every point, every moment, Gd reveals the Unity separating into Heaven and Earth, Subtle and Gross, and at every point cycling infinitely rapidly from layers of Subtle to Gross and the Wholeness within which they are always united.

In Parshah Noach, we see the story of how the diversity of the Gross is dissolved into the Ocean of Subtlety and yet an Ark with the seeds of diversity remains to reveal that the Wholeness is always there, diverse and also unified.

And so it is with us today: our daily routine, our religion, spiritual practice, are the Ark that carry us along to new beginnings, new insights into Unity, even while the diversity of life is always being dissolved into the Unity of Life: Thank Gd!

Baruch HaShem