by R. Gidon Rothstein
The Tower Was an Idolatry
Read simply, Bereshit 11;4 has people decide to build a city, with a tower whose top reached to the sky. Like last week, Ha-Ketav Ve-Ha-Kabbalah reaches for a less-used meaning of the word ir, city, to see their intentions differently.
He cannot accept that they were foolish enough to think they could build a city large enough to contain all humanity. Fortunately for him, a passage in Midrash Tehillim, explaining what “counsel of the wicked” Avraham refused to join, says the Tower people were focused on worshipping a power other than God.
To support the claim, the Midrash cited Daniel 4;10, where the word ir is used, and means some kind of power (Rashi there says it is an angel, always awake, ir a version of er, awake. R. Mecklenburg says the same here, shows verses where the root er means aware, not just not sleeping, and argues nivneh lanu ir means let us build an ever-aware protector).
Fending Off Nature
They were concerned about another Flood, thought they knew how to build a structure infused with celestial powers, able to ensure nature could not wield its force against them. He believes they had stratagems unknown to us, mystical or magical, but the underlying idea rings very true, people tell themselves they can anticipate what Nature is going to do, then be sure they have ways to subvert it, ensure they are safe from it.
The Migdal would be a structure at the top of this one, confronting the heavens in the sense of going up against the forces of Nature, the way God influences the world. (While until now, we might have thought the people considered Nature the ultimate power, only here does he say they knew God was in charge.) He calls them tipshim, fools, for thinking they could change how God constructed Nature, with their worship, witchcraft or voodoo.
[The idea seems to apply well to those who think they can change God’s plan for Nature. In the most common current example, there is a huge difference between saying we must be better stewards of the earth, not act in ways damaging to the climate, than it is to claim that global warming is coming, but here’s what we can do to change it.
To think we know the big picture, and can force change with whatever practices we currently think effective, is to make their error all over, I hear him saying. But maybe it’s just me.]
Natural and Imposed Separation Into Nations and Languages
A chapter earlier, 10;5, the Torah refers to descendants of Yefet who nifredu, separated into, various nations, goyim, each with their own lashon, before any idea of a Tower of Bavel where their languages get mixed. R. Hirsch understands the verse to be describing a natural process, a function of a nation’s growth, its spread into geographically and climatically distinct regions, sparking a corresponding change in their dialects. Since people are affected by their surroundings, their language and practices will have to adapt, making them different than their former fellows. (He thinks geography is the prime mover in the development of language variants.)
The natural process starts with hafradah, separation, leading to new lashon, dialect. With the Tower, he notes, the verse speaks of Hashem being mefitz, an imposed scatter, and mixing up their safot, overall language (he names French and German, which happen to come from different families. French, Italian, and Spanish, on the other hand, are all Romance, more similar to evolving dialects, although we today consider them distinct languages).
R. Hirsch envisions a world where natural spread led to incremental language changes, with slow evolution into distinct nations. The Tower fiasco had Hashem speed up and magnify the process.
The Preciousness of Human Blood
Malbim suggests a reading of Bereshit 9;5 he then uses to explain a completely different reading of Chazal’s. The verse says God will seek out/avenge human blood, mi-yad kol chayah edreshenu. I might have thought the last phrase means something about animals, as Rashi has it, but it does not seem to fit the context.
Malbim instead claims the verse means to warn against murder, in contrast to animals, now permitted for killing. The human soul is too precious, however, an idea that disallows suicide as well [not quite our topic, but Jewish tradition’s insistence our lives are not our own, such that suicide is basically murder, seems to me an insight too little known].
Murder can be bloody, the reason our verse speaks of God demanding the blood from us, but it doesn‘t have to be, why Hashem also warns that He will seek after/demand our souls.
But if murder includes suicide, from whom will God extract punishment for the crime? From every chayah, a word we usually think means animal or any living being, where Malbim says it means the immortal soul, that which lives on after.
How Chazal Knew the Rules of Evidence for Non-Jews
Until now, a fine comment but nothing earth-shattering. Here, though, Malbim notes Sanhedrin 57b, where Rav Yehudah offers our verse as the source of the rule that for non-Jews (should they operate under Torah law for non-Jews) one judge, with one witness, without warning to the criminal before s/he committed the crime, are legally sufficient to punish.
R. Yehudah saidach et dimchem, also your blood, means one judge is enough,mi-yad kol chayah (from every living creature) indicates even without warning, edreshenu (I/God will demand it of him) tells us even with one witness (where halachic courts require two), and more that is not vital here.
Malbim wants us to see the logic behind the inference, although he doesn’t quite explain it fully. He says if God will extract punishment, there must not be a need for a formal court, one judge would suffice. (I think he is claiming a formal court is about more than finding the truth, but if Hashem will judge and punish, He apparently “cares” only about identifying and punishing the guilty, which one judge can also do.) Similarly, the verse later said mi-yad ha-adam, from the perpetrator, the singular showing Malbim one witness could do it as well.
[A question Malbim’s idea raises: if we can find the truth with one judge and one witness, why did the Torah require two witnesses, three judges? Maybe we’ll see his views on that later in the Torah.]
Because he had defined chayah as soul, had taken it to warn against suicide, it also fits well with R. Yehudah’s inference that no warning is needed (because suicides almost never have warning ahead of time, I think he is saying).
The verse closes with what we might have read to explain the strictness of the punishment, where Malbim says it justifies the strictness of the process, one judge, one witness, no warning. His original reading allowed him to offer a fuller explanation of what might have otherwise seemed forced inferences by Chazal.
A Fuller Version of Sacrifice
In 8;20, Noach builds an altar, takes mi-kol, of all (a word to which we will return), the kosher animals and birds, and offers them as olot. R. David Zvi Hoffman sees a qualitative advance in the symbolism of animal sacrifice.
Kayin and Hevel offered a mincha, to his reading simply an acknowledgement of God, where an altar is a raised structure, the ascent to it symbolizing the human desire to go up to Heaven, to be closer to God. That’s why it’s called an olah, literally an ascending, the person offering it desirous of rising to God.
He sees similar symbolism in the Torah’s always using the Four Letter Name in the context of sacrifice. Only to this Name, which expresses God’s aspects of saving and educating people, can we connect. (Elokim is a more exact and severe aspect, with less room for undeserved salvation or patient teaching, forgiving mistakes as part of the process of learning, I think he means.)
Noach gave us the idea of sacrifice as path “up” to God.
How Animals and Birds Symbolize Humans
As I noted earlier, Noach seems to offer a range of animals and birds, plausibly one of each type. While there all domesticated animals, cows, sheep, and goats, are all eligible for sacrifice, so there is no surprise in Noach offering them, only benei yonah or tor, turtledoves or pigeons, are acceptable by Torah law, yet the verse seems to say he gave many more types of birds.
Before the Torah was given, more species were acceptable, so perhaps Noach gave of all of them to symbolize his wandering, how the waves of the Flood had carried them from place to place beyond their control, with Hashem there to save them. [He implies that we lost some of the richness of the symbolism of sacrifice when the Torah limited us to two types of birds, but does not discuss.]
Four steps to building human society in this week’s parsha: a blow at people’s insistence they can resist what nature has in store for them; a speeded-up differentiation of nations and languages, although it would have happened eventually anyway; a strict set of rules prohibiting murder and prosecuting those who commit it; and some human growth in the striving for closeness to God.