These divrei Torah were adapted from the hashkafa portion of Rabbi Yissocher Frand’s Commuter Chavrusah Tapes on the weekly portion: Tape # 255, Preventing A Suicide.
Three Philosophies at Bavel:One Destroyed; One Still Pops Up; One is Ever Present
There is a fascinating Midrash in this week’s parsha. The pasuk [verse] says, “Come, let us build us a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed across the whole earth.” [Bereishis 11:4] The Midrash comments that one third of the Tower of Bavel eventually burnt, one third of it sunk into the ground, and one third of it still remains in existence. And even the remaining third is so tall that if one ascends to the top and looks down, the palm trees look like grasshoppers.
This type of Midrash begs for clarification. Chazal [the Rabbis] wrote Agaddah (non-legal portions of the Talmud and Midrash) in a special language, which is a type of code. Often when we see a coded message and we read it literally, it makes no sense at all. It is our task in trying to understand such a Midrash to try to “declassify” it and understand what Chazal are telling us.
It is highly unlikely that the authors of the Midrash actually saw remnants of the Tower of Bavel. It is highly unlikely that they had evidence or even a tradition that one-third of the tower sunk into the ground and one-third of it burnt. This whole Midrash is allegorical.
I saw a terrific interpretation of this Midrash from Rav Nissan Alpert, zt”l (who was an outstanding disciple of Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt”l). Rav Alpert links this Midrash with another Midrash on Parshas Noach, which attributes various motives to the builders of that tower. We find a three way Rabbinic dispute as to that motivation. The portion of the Tower of Bavel is introduced with the pasuk [Bereishis 11:1] “And the earth was of one language and of ‘devarim achadim'”. There are three interpretations of this last phrase.
One opinion interprets the expression “devarim achadim” literally — ‘common words’. There was a unity of purpose amongst the people; they were all dedicated to a common cause – a new world order, a universal government ruling all of mankind.
A second opinion interprets the phrase as “sharp words” (as if written ‘devarim chadim’) – meaning the people were issuing a challenge to Heaven. According to this opinion they issued a sharp challenge to G-d. They stuck a sword on top of the tower as a sign that they were prepared to do battle against the Almighty if he tried to extend His Dominion to this world.
A third opinion interprets the motivation as a preventative act against a future flood. They felt that by nature every so often the sky begins to fall, causing tremendous flooding. The Tower was intended to support the sky, so that it would not sag in the future, causing ecological damage.
Rav Alpert explains that the first Midrash is itemizing the fate that befell the three philosophies of life, which were represented by the builders of the Tower of Bavel (according to the various opinions in the second Midrash). One of the philosophies has burnt, in other words it has been totally destroyed and no longer exists. One of them has sunk into the ground, in other words it has basically been submerged – but every once and a while it rears its head again. Finally, one of them is still around – alive, well, and prevalent in today’s society.
The philosophy of, “we will rage war against G-d” has been totally eradicated. It is interesting that in present times, every kingdom – no matter how evil or corrupt – always argues that what they are doing is “in the name of G-d”. When Sadaam Hussein challenged the world, he kept invoking the argument “G-d is on my side”. How could G-d be on his side? The man is a monster! Such is the power of self-delusion. Everyone believes that they have G-d on their side. Today, no one argues that they are waging war against G-d. That philosophy no longer exists today. It was “burnt”
The “new world order” philosophy has been submerged. Even though it is fundamentally discredited, it still exists and from time to time it continues to pop up. At the end of World War I, the nations of the world joined together to try to form a “new world order”. They tried to create a “League of Nations”. The League of Nations lasted a few years and then World War II began. Following World War II, another attempt was made – in San Francisco. This time it is called “The United Nations”. We all know, over fifty years later, how bankrupt and corrupt such an institution can become. We all know how far the reality has fallen short of the dream. President Bush again raised the idea of “a new world order” after the Iraqi war. Six months later – the coalition had fallen apart. It is the same story all over again. The idea submerges, and from time to time it will pop up. Until the coming of the Messiah, there will not be a “new world order” of universal government.
But the third philosophy behind the Tower of Bavel still exists. Which philosophy is this? The philosophy that we must build such a tower to prevent another flood. Consider this. Noach stood in front of the ark for 120 years warning that G-d was about to bring a flood. Noach was mocked and ridiculed for 120 years. Finally, the flood came. Noach was saved and everyone else drowned – just like he predicted.
What should the conclusion be? Any thinking person should conclude that there is a G-d who brings reward and punishment upon mankind.
What did the people of that generation say? It is a problem of nature. It can be corrected by properly constructing a support tower to prevent the sky from sagging. There will not be any more floods.
That third philosophy still exists. To this very day, day in and day out, we have the same phenomenon. G-d can perform open miracles, but there will always be people who attribute them to nature, statistics, and coincidence… anything but the Hand of G-d.
That philosophy has existed from the time of the Tower of Bavel to this very day. And it exists to such an extent that “one who ascends the tower sees palm trees as if they are grasshoppers”. The miracle can be so great, that it towers over the landscape like a palm tree. And yet the nay-sayers will minimize it to the size of a grasshopper, attributing it to nature and happenstance. Thirty-nine Scuds fell on Israel (during the Gulf War) and only 3 people were killed. “Nu, they were lucky. It fell on the right places”. The bigger the miracle, the smaller they say it appears.
Technical Assistance by Dovid Hoffman; Yerushalayim.
This write-up was adapted from the hashkafa portion of Rabbi Yissocher Frand’s Commuter Chavrusah Torah Tape series on the weekly Torah portion. The complete list of halachic topics covered in this series for Parshas Noach are provided below:
- Tape # 027 – The Abortion Controversy
- Tape # 069 – Ma’ariv and Mitzvos in the Land of Midnight Sun
- Tape # 118 – Suicide: Is it Ever Permitted?
- Tape # 165 – Euthanasia
- Tape # 211 – Animal Experimentation
- Tape # 255 – Preventing a Suicide
- Tape # 301 – Teaching Torah to Non-Jews
- Tape # 345 – Milah for Non-Jews: Is it Permitted
- Tape # 389 – Abortion to Save a Baby?
- Tape # 433 – Assisting in a Suicide
- Tape # 477 – Tzedakah and Non-Jews
- Tape # 521 – The Ben Noach & the Nectarine
Tapes or a complete catalogue can be ordered from:
Yad Yechiel Institute
PO Box 511
Owings Mills, MD 21117-0511
Call (410) 358-0416 for further information.
Also Available: Mesorah / Artscroll has published a collection of Rabbi Frand’s essays. The book is entitled:
and is available through your local Hebrew book store or from Project Genesis, 1-410-654-1799.