Genesis 11:1-32 (Plaut p.69; Hertz p.38)
Haftarah Noach Isaiah 54:1-55:5 (Plaut p.85; Hertz p.41)
Shabbat Rosh Chodesh Isaiah 66:1-13, 23 (Plaut p. 1492; Hertz p.944)
Parashat Noach tells the story of God’s decision to destroy the earth with a flood because of the corruption and wickedness found in the world. Only Noach – the only righteous man on earth – his family, and a pair of every kind of creature on earth were to survive. Noach was told to build a large boat, the Ark, sufficient in size to accommodate the family and all the creatures. After the flood, those aboard the Ark started a new life on earth all over again, and God promised to Noach that never again a flood would be sent to destroy the entire earth. A new covenant was formed between God and all human beings. To this day the rainbow is the sign for this eternal covenant. The Parashah continues with the report of the building of the Tower of Babel. The people decide to build a city, and to create a tower that would reach from earth to heaven. This, too, angered God, who destroyed the tower and scattered the people across the entire planet, each group talking a different language.
We regularly find, either in the news or on TV of another attempt by man to build The World’s Tallest Building. It has become something of a ‘competition’ to construct one skyscraper that beats all skyscrapers, and it seems to me that the builders not only strive for that. It is almost implied that through their building they will gain fame, and make a name for themselves. This Torah portion clearly shows us that the people who populated the earth at the time of the report failed in their quest to construct a city and a tower, but they succeeded in making a name for themselves – or at least for the place where they embarked on this project.
But “Babel” is a name that has been tarnished by this experience; it’s a name that reminds us of confusion and failure. I am not saying it’s not good to strive for and seek perfection – the creation of The World’s Tallest Building, for example – but we need to question the motives behind the creation of such a building, and what purpose such a building would serve, and what will be located in it? The same applies to the concept of ‘making a name for oneself’. We need to be conscious of the association we want to be linked to our name.
In Jewish tradition the aspiration of such an undertaking would be not simply to attain ‘a name’, but to obtain a ‘good’ name, for as Proverbs says: “A good name is more valuable than great riches.” (Proverbs 22:1).
–Rabbi Adrian M Schell
(Sources: Fields, A Torah commentary for our times; Burkeman, 2 Minutes of Torah)