Lech L'cha

A self-guided journey through the Torah. Go to, by, and for yourself.

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Location: Ann Arbor, MI

I am a research associate at the University of Michigan School of Education, and a doctoral candidate in Mathematics and Education. I also have an active side career in Jewish education. Plus I spend too much time reading webcomics.

Friday, October 27, 2006

The Tower

Last week's Torah portion depicted the first two recorded instances of sin: that of Adam and Eve, and that of Cain. One interesting aspect of these two sins is that they are, in one sense, almost polar opposites of one another. Let me explain what I mean, and this will serve as an introduction to what I really want to talk about, namely, this week's reading.

It's easy to understand what was wrong about Adam and Eve's eating of the apple: it was in direct disregard of God's instructions to them. Note that eating the fruit was not, in and of itself, an immoral act; it became immoral solely because God had told them not to. Their sin, in other words, was in placing their own desires and values above God's laws. Now with this as precedent, one might take a look at Cain's murder of his brother and say: Well, God never told him not to do it. God never said that murder was forbidden. How can Cain be held accountable for breaking a law, if nobody ever told him what the law was?

But of course this is bunk. Obviously Cain knew what he had done was wrong -- he tried to hide the evidence, and then lied about it to God. Clearly Cain's sin is of a different nature than Abel's. Cain's act was a sin not because of any explicit God-given laws, but because it violated basic fundamentals of morality, and even the murderer knew that.

Here we have exemplars of the two basic categories of law in Judaism: the chok and the mishpat. A chok (usually translated as "decree") is a law that we are supposed to observe simply because it is the will of God. We don't have to (and usually can't) understand the purpose of a chok; we know God wants us to obey it, and so we do. The laws of kashrut are perfect examples of chukkim; while many explanations have been put forward for them, the bottom line is that we obey them because we believe God has told us to. Period.

A mishpat ("statute"), on the other hand, is a law that serves an evident purpose. Mishpatim have a clear moral dimension, and serve the social order in obvious ways. "Thou shalt not steal" is a Mishpat.

We can say, then, that Adam and Eve broke a chok; Cain broke a mishpat. That both of these appear right at the beginning of the book of Genesis is a clear sign that both are equally significant violations.

Okay, now we turn to this week's Torah portion, Noach. Here, again, we are confronted with two major stories about sin and punishment: the generation of the flood, and the Tower of Bavel. What do we get if we apply the above analytical framework to this portion?

First, let's consider the generation of the flood. The Torah is oblique when it comes to describing exactly what these people did that was so terrible, but it seems pretty clear that the problem was one of widespread immorality of a profound nature. And since no further decrees have been given since we left the Garden, it seems unlikely that there's any kind of chok violation going on. Let's regard the generation of the flood, then, as engaging in widespread violation of fundamental mishpatim.

Okay, so what about Bavel? Based on purely literary grounds, you might be expecting that this was a chok transgression. But God never said "Don't build a big tower." There's no decree violation there. On the other hand, it hardly seems like an ethical or moral violation, either. There's nothing particularly immoral about building a really tall tower. So what was so bad about it?

The usual midrashic explanation is that the people were building the tower because they wanted to make war on heaven. While this is a fascinating interpretation, I really don't see why God would take such a "threat" seriously. Wouldn't it have been simpler for God to just let them keep building and building, higher and higher, and let them be punished by their own folly?

The truth is that we don't need a midrashic explanation for the people's actions, because there is a pshat sitting right there in the text waiting for us. The key is to recognize that the Hebrew word "migdal", which we usually translate here as "tower", could also mean "fortress". What the people were building was a fortress with its head in the heavens. Now, the usual reason for building a fortress is to keep people out. But in this case, there was nobody on the outside. The text tells us that all the people in the world were gathered together in the plain of Shinar. They didn't build the fortress to keep people out, but to keep people in. The text is explicit on this point: The people want to build a fortress to make a name for themselves, "lest we be scattered."

In other words: The people are not afraid of others. There are no others to be afraid of. Rather, they are afraid of becoming others, of otherness. They want to all be the same: one people, one language, one place.

This, however, is a direct violation of one of God's decrees. Remember that God told Noah and his sons to be fruiful and multiply, to fill the earth. Instead of filling the earth, the people have decided to bottle themselves up in one small corner of it. They know that allowing themselves to spread out will, inevitably, lead to change and variety. They know that they would not be one people any more. This thought is terrifying to them, so they build a wall around themselves, and make a fortress that no one will ever leave.

Seen from this perspective, God's punishment now seems perfectly sensible. He forced on them the change that they hid from. He confuses their language. Now, suddenly, abruptly, they are no longer one people. Immediately they begin to spread out, to leave Bavel and migrate abroad. Since they would not fill the earth of their own volition, God made them do it against their will.

There is a lesson here, I think, for all of us who try to preserve a traditional religious lifestyle in a modern world. On the one hand we want to insulate our lives and our children from the outside world. Achdut (unity) is an important Jewish value; we want our children to remain Jewish, not to become "others". So we have a strong inclination to keep the outside world at arm's length. On the other hand we have this text, which tells us that we can't (shouldn't) put a wall around ourselves and keep the world outside. It's important for us to be out in the world, to bring our identities with us, and to learn to live with the tension that comes with being both a part of the larger culture and apart from it.


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