- Rabbi Isaac Roussel
Parshat Noach: Tale of Four Cities
On Yom Kippur I spoke about the Tale of Three Cities. Today I would like to talk about four cities. The Torah looks askance at cities. They are often places of injustice and oppression whereas the wilderness is a place of peace, a place where we can hear God’s still small voice.
The first city mentioned in the Torah is Enoch, established by Cain after being cast out to wander the earth for killing his brother. So the first city was built by the first murderer. A man who bragged about his violence and vengefulness.
The second city, Sedom, we talked about on Yom Kippur. Like we said then, this was a city of extreme violence. There is a scene in the Torah where a mob comprised of young and old, all of the men of the city, demanding the release of the two angels so that they can rape and do violence to them. Lot and his guests were essentially facing a violent mob. Mobs are particularly dangerous because people will do things that they would never do on their own.
The third city is the capital of Egypt. It too is a place of injustice. Joseph is falsely accused by his master’s wife and thrown in prison. It is also a place of oppression. Later our people were enslaved and forced into hard labor. It is also a city of idolatry where Paro is considered divine himself.
The fourth city is in our parsha this week. It too is a place of rebellion, oppression, and idolatry. The Torah says:
Now the entire earth was of one language and uniform words. And it came to pass when they traveled from the east, that they found a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, "Come, let us make bricks and fire them thoroughly"; so the bricks were to them for stones, and the clay was to them for mortar. And they said, "Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make ourselves a name, lest we be scattered upon the face of the entire earth.
Their sin against Hashem in doing this is three-fold. First, they say that they wanted to build a name for themselves. This is indicative of extreme hubris and self-worship.
Second, they built a tower that reached the heavens, challenging God Himself. At Creation God separated the heavens from the earth, but they are wanting to overcome that and charge heaven itself. The Hebrew word BaDaL means to separate; this word is used to describe this separation of these two spheres. The Torah says that the city is called Babel from the word BaLaL, which means to mix, jumble, or confuse. They wanted to mix heaven and earth again, supplanting God. The Talmud asks which generation was more wicked, before the Flood or at Babel. Rashi replies that it is Babel, because unlike the former, they attacked Hashem.
Third, they wanted to settle down and stay together in one place. This is in direct rebellion to God’s command for humanity to spread across the face of the earth.
Both Jewish and Christian tradition state that Babel was ruled by King Nimrod, who is a Cain-like figure; a man of violence. The Bible calls him a mighty hunter. Rabbi Samuel Raphael Hirsch says that he wasn’t a hunter of animals but of humans. He sought to dominate and enslave others; he was a tyrant. He is the one who commanded the tower be built. Our Sages tell us that this tower stood for the power of the society over the individual. Humans were devalued in order to accomplish the group’s goals. They say that as they built it, when a stone would fall from the top of the tower, the people would stop and wail because it took so much effort to get it up there. But when a worker fell from the tower to their death, no one cared and kept on working.
The society of Babel worshiped power, technology, wealth. In their pride, they made themselves idols. It was a dehumanizing environment. It truly was Babel, a place of confusion.
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks asserts that all of these cities are samples of society versus community. Societies are made up by strangers, where people are treated as commodities, wealth and power are worshiped, where the human family is fractured. Communities on the other hand are people living together in a shared covenant, where they know each other, are responsible for one another, it is a place of relationship. This is what the Torah deems the ideal and the goal of humanity. Community is perverted and twisted into impersonal societies.
Is this not what we see today in societies around the world? Huge cities with millions in abject poverty, oppressed minorities, people devalued to mere commodities in the worship of wealth. Our political system only serves to keep those who have wealth and power in their place of privilege. We live in a society where no one feels obligated to the other, it is only about their desires.
We see in Yochanan’s Revelation the city of Babylon which is the epitome of this. The text says that it is drunk on the blood of Hashem’s holy people. It is called the Mother of Prostitutes, meaning that the people are prostituting themselves with forces of evil. They worship a king as God. And just like Babel, they wage war on Hashem and His Messiah. It is the antithesis of the Heavenly Jerusalem where God and His Messiah live amongst their people and there is no more pain, suffering, tears, or death. It is a city flowing with the healing waters of the River of Life!
So what are we to do in the face of this? Certainly we can strive against these negative forces in our society. We can seek for justice to prevail, for the poor to have their dignity restored, to fight against great evils like racism.
But there is also a saying that “Charity begins at home.” It is imperative that we, here at CZA, strive to be a community and not a society. We need to model the vision of the Torah of a world where we are responsible for one another, love one another, and restore each other’s dignity. We are in effect to live as Yeshua taught when he said “This is the mitzvah that I give you, love one another, as I have loved you.”
We are already pretty good at community building. None of us are like Cain, Nimrod, Paro, or their societies, we are also not perfect, there is always room for improvement. We have had our own share of strife and confusion in the last year. It occurs in all of us in dark thoughts, an unloving spirit, and microaggressions. We should be continually striving to improve upon this; to build an intentional community where we do love one another, give each other dignity and the benefit of the doubt, lift one another up. Like Rav Shaul, we should resolutely set our eyes on this prize. We should be constantly asking ourselves how we can make our small corner of the world an exemplar of the Torah’s vision of community.
We have a choice before us each and every day; every minute of every day. Which tower are we going to build? We can make bricks towards the building of the Heavenly Jerusalem or Babylon, the supreme city of rebellion.
May we in our own lives not make bricks to build Babylon.
May we make our own community a True Community, a Torah Community, one that fulfills Yeshua’s mitzvah of love.
May we resolutely set our eyes on this prize.
And thereby create a place of healing and love, and a foretaste of the Heavenly Jerusalem!