This week as we read Parshat Noach we encounter the well-known stories of our childhood, the story of the Ark (“the animals went in two by two”) and the Tower of Babel. What is sometimes missed is the relevance of these stories to our own lives not just in the past but today.
Noah, described as “righteous in his generation”, faces a catastrophe; rising flood waters that will wipe out all human habitations on land. What caused God to react so drastically? The explanation given is
כִּי־מָֽלְאָ֥ה הָאָ֛רֶץ חָמָ֖ס מִפְּנֵיהֶ
for the earth has become full of robbery (“hamas”) because of them
The word חָמָ֖ס (“hamas”) has more sinister modern-day connotations but R. Hanina understood it to mean the theft of a small amount, easily overlooked. The inference is that even small acts of immorality can undermine society.
How righteous was Noah? He is described as “walking with God” but does not argue for any chance of saving humanity. Moses would argue and protect us. The story of Jonah which we read on Yom Kippur shows God prepared to offer a chance to the people of Nineveh. Being righteous can easily spill over into being self-righteous.
The people were settled in the valley of Shinar, with a common language and were building rather than being engaged in destruction. They feared that they would have no name and become scattered. God acts to scatter them so that the instruction to multiply and occupy the earth would be obeyed. This was done by
Confusing their language, so that one will not understand the language of his companion.
Without different voices to offer alternative views, we risk drifting into a totalitarian society where dissent is squashed as happens in many parts of the world today. To “speak with one voice” and “joint exercise” seems a positive thing but where is the space for a dissident view? Where is the space for the “still small voice”?
As Jews we represent a challenge to a monolithic world order. Different translations of Chumashim and Tanach have subtle differences, but all are based on the same Hebrew text. We may not fully understand our companions, but we offer an alternative towards rebuilding the world.