The Flood and the Tower of Bavel, though polar opposites, are a brilliant study in human complexities
“The entire earth had one language and a common speech.” (Bereishis 11:1)
I once asked Catholic writer Paul Johnson about his book A History of the Jews. What was his strongest impression of Judaism? He replied: “Historically, there have been societies that emphasised the individual — like the secular West today. Others have placed weight on the collective — Communist Russia or China.”
Judaism, he continued, was the most successful example he knew of that managed the delicate balance between both — giving equal weight to individual and collective responsibility. Judaism was a religion of strong individuals and strong communities.
Unwittingly, he’d paraphrased Hillel’s aphorism: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me (individual responsibility)? But if I am only for myself, what am I (collective responsibility)?” (Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, Covenant & Conversation)
“Ma, what does anarchy mean?” asked Yitzi from the back seat. “My rebbi said that’s what’s happening in Afghanistan.”
We were on our way to the shoe store before Yom Tov and current events were far from my mind.
“Not just Afghanistan!” Avi leaned over to impart his older and wiser knowledge. “Even America’s full of anarchy these days.”
“It’s each person eating his friend alive.” Binyamin quoted the Mishnah for good measure. (Personally, that’s what I was dreading at the shoe store.)
“But what does it mean?” insisted Yitzi.
“Hefker. The whole world is hefker,” Avi intoned.
A pithy, sad observation.
The events at the beginning of the parshah — the Flood — and at the end — the Tower of Bavel — seemingly have nothing in common. However, the flood tells us what happens to civilization when individuals rule and there is no collective, and Bavel what happens when the collective rules and individuals are sacrificed to it.
We parked by the store and I moved from political science to the laws of economics.
“One pair of sturdy shoes,” I began the familiar liturgy, “and I determine what’s sturdy, not the brand.”
“Look!” Binyamin picked up a wallet from the ground. The three boys huddled as he opened it.
“It’s filled with credit cards! And cash! And checks! We’re rich!” giggled Yitzi.
“Nah, we gotta find the owner. The name’s in English, but I’m not sure how to pronounce it.” It was spelled with lots of Ks and Hs. No one I knew.
There were many checks too, mostly written out to cash. My heart took a dive thinking of the money this person would lose and the frustration of canceling credit cards if we couldn’t find him. Then we found a personal check of his with a phone number. I quickly dialed.
Disconnected. Now what?
“But here’s another check of his.” Avi exclaimed. “Different address, different phone number. Maybe he moved!”
I dialed the new number, holding my breath as it rang. A man answered. And yes! When we told him we had something he may have lost, he said he was right there by the shoe store. My boys dashed into the store.
Such situations exist today. The Flood and the Tower of Bavel, though polar opposites, are a brilliant study in human complexities. Yet after those two great failures, Avraham was called upon to create a new form of social order that would give equal honor to the individual and the collective — both personal responsibility and the common good. That remains the special gift of Jews and Judaism to the world.
A young dark-haired man stood there, eyes slightly suspicious at our abrupt entrance.
“Did you lose your wallet?” blurted Yitzi.
“Shh.” Binyamin elbowed him. “We need simanim.”
“My wallet.” The man automatically reached for his pocket, then his face drained as he realized it was empty. “I didn’t even know it was gone,” he whispered.
“Where do you live?” Avi went into get-simanim mode. “And where did you used to live?”
After he answered correctly, the boys handed him his wallet, and his face changed again. “I can’t thank you enough!” He gave each one of my boys a personal brachah with deep emotion.
“And you are the mother,” he said, nodding toward me. “Lucky is the one who raised such boys! Mi k’amcha Yisrael that you can help a stranger in so many ways.”
Then, with another string of brachos, the man shook hands with each one of my boys and headed for his car, leaving us with the warm feelings of helping a fellow Yid. The perfect antidote to anarchy.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 762)
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