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!