At the beginning of Parshas Noach G-d destroyed the world. At the end of Parshas Noach G-d destroyed a tower.
At the beginning of Noach G-d concluded that humanity could not be redeemed. Except for Noach and his family, the rest of humanity had become so perverted that Teshuvah (repentance) was impossible. If we contrast this with Avraham and his attempt to save the five city-states of Sodom and Gomorrah we can better understand the magnitude of the perversion.
In Parshas Vayera, Avraham will negotiate with G-d for the salvation of Sodom. His first offer will involve fifty righteous men. The Medresh referenced by Rashi (18:28-32) explains that the fifty represented ten righteous individuals in each of the five city-states. If they did exist, their collective merit as a Minyan (quorum) would be able to save their entire city.
As the negotiations continue Avraham will offer less and less. His second attempt will be for forty-five righteous individuals, representing nine in each city-state plus G-d filling in for the 10th man. Negotiating downward from forty to ten, Avraham’s strategy will be to negotiate for as many cities as he can. He was forced to accept that only those cities that had ten righteous men could be saved. The others would be destroyed. Nevertheless, Avraham continues to negotiate even if he will save only one of the five city-states. As we know, ten such righteous men could not be found in the Sodomite kingdom and all five city-states were destroyed.
Ten, as the critical number, represents the smallest spark of societal potential necessary for reform and correction. So long as the Sodomite way of life had not eradicated all semblance of G-dliness, goodness, and righteousness there was still hope for salvation. However, a society that is so far gone, so evil, that the smallest of righteous communities cannot exist, has no hope of reform and must be destroyed.
What about the world? What is the critical minimum number of righteous individuals necessary to sustain the world?
According to the Rabbis, the prediluvian world was more settled and populated than our own is. If there are four billion people today there was double that amount before the Mabul. How many righteous would it have taken to save the world from utter devastation? The answer is ten. Rashi in Vayera (18:32) explains that Noach, his three sons and each of their spouses constituted eight. Even if they included G-d in the count there would have still been only nine. Therefore, the world had to be destroyed.
The underlying principle for human survival and its potential for goodness is community. As G-d said to Adam, the first human creature, “It is not good for Adam to be alone.” Not only must each human have a partner for the technical purposes of procreation and building families, but also humans cannot be alone. Humans need to belong to a family, community, and society.
The human need to belong requires further analysis.
G-d created a world of separations and divisions with countless species and sub-species that are distinctly different from each other. As we have explained in many different forums, the established lines of demarcation between one species and the next teaches us that each and every thing that G-d created has a divine purpose. Our job is to relate to each and every thing G-d created as a revelation of G-d’s specific intention and will. Therefore, we must respect all things and avoid purposelessly wasting or destroying anything. Certainly, when it relates to other humans we must cherish each other and our possessions as physical manifestation of G-d’s will. Who you are and what you have are divinely you and yours. What I am and who I am is divinely me and mine.
The animal world instinctively respects natural demarcations. If, for example, wild animals leave the forest and begin to forage where humans have settled it is an indication that something is wrong with the ecosystem that should otherwise provide ample food for all the animals in the forest. When the ecosystem is healthy, wild animals tend to stay in the forest and avoid human habitation. In almost every situation of conflict and invasion, whether against animal or human, it is the human who confronts and invades, not the animal. The notion of animal conquest and domination does not exist in the natural world. It only exists in the fantasies of literature and movies.
Animals also seem to need family and community. Some species will display a more sophisticated social structure and hierarchy, and others will be far more primitive in their organization. However, each species naturally and instinctually understands the limits of their species and for the most past stay away from other species. Not so with humans.
The human creature is far more complicated than its animal counterparts. The human understands that it too must belong to family and community. It too instinctually feels loneliness and craves the companionship and support of others. However, at the same time, the human does not like to be restricted, responsible, or dependent. Family, community, and society can only exist if there are rules and regulations to govern the interactive dependencies of humans. Otherwise there is chaos and anarchy rather than productive co-existence.
To state this concept more accurately, the human does not like to pay the price for not being lonely and for sharing the companionship and support of others. The human craves social contact but resents the price of belonging to a society.
A simple example.
I am a parent who wishes his or her children to experience Tefilah (prayer) in a Minyan (quorum of ten men over the age of 13). I am willing to pay membership to belong to the local synagogue, walk however far I must walk, give up the time from other possible activities, so that my children and I are part of the communal prayer experience. However, I am unwilling to not talk during the prayers when talking is not permitted or stop my children from running wild in the sanctuary or hallways. In fact, I feel that somehow it is my right to not take into consideration the realities of being part of a community. My children and I have the right to do as we want. Why? Because my “I” defines the immediate need, even at the expense of the community and others.
The perversion and domination of the “I” over everyone else reached irreversible proportions at the time of the Mabul. Therefore, G-d destroyed the world.
The correction process for humanity was to be imprisoned in a limited space with a single responsibility – care for the animals in the “Box.” The eight humans spent an entire year working and protecting the world with no time to think about themselves or their own needs. (Except for Cham) “And G-d placed the human in the Garden of Eden to work and to protect.”
Three-hundred-and forty years later humanity had flourished. The many who were born stayed near to each other. In many regards it was an ideal society. They related to each other as a single community with similar background and ideals.
All of them were the descendents of the three sons of Noach. The three sons represented three components of humanity: Intellect, passion, and esthetics. (see Rav Hirsch) The three were intended to create a single community that would respect each other’s uniqueness and share in each other’s contributions. Shem would formulate the ideals and values of the brave new world. Yefes would give form and beauty to the ideals and values by building structures of material and discipline. Cham would take the ideals and the beauty and infuse them with passion so that all would want to belong and follow. In the end it would be a single family of humanity searching to serve their single Creator as He intended. However, it didn’t happen that way.
The few and the gifted (e.g. Shem and Ever) retreated into the seclusion of prayer and study in search of divine truth and understanding while the vast majority of humanity made community the ultimate ideal and an end onto itself. That was the story of the Tower of Babel.
The people gathered in a valley to build a tower in recognition of their own selves. The building rose in opposition to G-d. G-d descended and saw that there was still fundamental goodness to humanity, except that it was caught between the desire to belong and the desire to be free of responsibility. G-d saw a mass of humanity who shared many traits in common but did not truly care for each other as divine manifestations of His will. Instead they served each other only as a means toward satisfying their own needs. They emulated the ideals of their leader Nimrod, the grandson of Cham. Nimrods natural talents provided him with the passion and energy to galvanize all of humanity using the ideal of community to serve the one true master. That master was of course himself.
G-d decided that humanity was redeemable. A community of selfless righteousness could flourish within the world. However, humanity would have to take a step back from the ideal of community and respect the lines of demarcation separating person from person. They needed to learn that the ideal that could bind all of humanity into a single community was, “giving to others without asking anything in return.”
Therefore, G-d imposed separation and division on the family of Noach through language. Seventy languages emerged from the rubble of the great tower. Confusion reigned supreme as no one knew how to communicate his or her own needs to the others. Instead, they were forced to compromise their own immediate needs and recognize the needs of others. They were forced to pay close attention and listen to everyone else talking in the hope of understanding what everyone else needed. Once they were forced to listen to each other they had to stop thinking only of themselves. Once they stopped thinking only of themselves they realized that the world was shared with so many others.
The beginning of redemption is thinking of everyone else and caring for what they need. If everyone worked to provide for the needs of everyone else, no one would every need anything.
Copyright © 2003 by Rabbi Aron Tendler and torah.org
The author is Rabbi of Shaarey Zedek Congregation, Valley Village, CA.