Rabbi Label Lam
A World is Built!
The two great epochs of human history broadly described in this week’s
portion are not mere historical accounts but rather they are portraits of a
classic human dilemma that persists till today.
The flood was brought upon the world, our Torah tells us, because of
robbery and personal immorality. Rav S.R. Hirsch teaches us that the word
"chamas"-violence that "filled the world" at the time is etymologically
related to the word "chometz" which means spoilage. The fabric of society
began to become frayed and irreparably eroded due to rampant individual
selfishness. Business and personal relationships based upon trust are warn
thin and hopelessly deteriorate when every person is only interested in
himself. The result of unbounded individual freedom is anarchy. Suspicion
reigns where a bridge of trust might have been built and gridlock occurs
where competing desires intersect. As resentments mount and grudges grow
more insurmountable barriers are continually being erected between
people. The fruit of that society caused it to suffocate itself and it
remains a model of human failure for all time.
The next great era was a response to the prior. The society of the tower
sought to correct some of the problems identified in the time of
flood. Everyone is herded together. An iron curtain is created to hem
humanity into a single location. Part of the reason of the Tower of Babel
was to create a rallying point to unite all of mankind. The project of the
tower was to show the unity and cooperative spirit that was lacking in the
previous era. Why was this attempt also thwarted and ultimately relegated
as a paradigm of human folly?
Not one person is mentioned by name in the recording of that event. "Come
let us build a city and a tower with its head in the heavens and let us
make a name for ourselves" (Breishis 11:3). Every accomplishment is for the
group. Everyone’s individual identity is rendered meaningless and merged
automatically with the goal of the whole. The society and its aspirations
are dictated at the expense of the single individual. Our sages tell us
that when a brick fell down people agonized but when a person died in the
process of building they carried on without acknowledgment.
The classic human dilemma can simply be described like this: When the full
emphasis is on the individual, supreme chaos and anarchy prevails and the
goals of society as a whole are frustrated. When society is all-powerful
the individual suffers the dictated fate of the faceless drone bee. All
his personal ambitions are squelched and his talents sacrificed for the
sake of the state made holy above all.
What then is more important? The individual or the society! Is this not
the also the debate of every political election and the cause of much of
the struggle in the world today!?
The answer is simple and difficult. The next important focus of the
Torah after the tower is the life of our patriarch Avraham. Rav Hirsch
makes note of the fact that the Torah turns to the life of an individual,
one that would have the most powerfully positive influence on the affairs
of mankind, to reject the previous failed experiment. How is this a
solution? Does the pendulum swing back to the world of the selfish
individual? They answer is not in the extreme or even the healthy
compromise of the two. The answer is a radical departure; a new order.
The paradox is resolved with the simple understanding that selfish
individualism breeds anarchy, and a selfish dictator homogenizes the
identity of his people. Avraham was the model of selflessness. His
principle was kindliness- being concerned with the needs of others. A
society of Avraham-like people would produce a qualitatively different
world order and a leader that would be as concerned about private needs as
he is about the general public good.
Where are such people, though, being produced and where are they being
appreciated? The saintly Chofetz Chaim softly rebuked two students who
came late to class one day. It was not the lateness that was the issue.
Each had retrieved a chair after realizing that all seats in the room were
occupied. The Chofetz Chaim pointed out to them the lost opportunity. If
each would have gotten a chair for the other, both would have had a chair
and both would have had an act of kindliness. The principle of
thoughtfulness and kindliness and is that new order on which a world is built!
Text Copyright © 2001 Rabbi Dovid Green and
Project Genesis, Inc.