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A Towering Mistake

Rabbi Wagensberg
Parsha Noach
A Towering Mistake

We find two separate stories in this week’s parsha which occurred in two different time periods. The first story deals with the Dor Hamabul (the Generation of the Flood) and the second story discusses the Dor Haflaga (the Generation who were Dispersed after building a city and a tower).

Since Noach was alive during the Mabul, and since Avraham was alive during the story of the tower, we now know that there were ten generations separating between these two events because in Pirkei Avos (chap. 5, “Ba’asara Ma’amaros”, Mishna 3) it says that there were ten generations between Noach and Avraham.

Very often, the story of the Dor Haflaga gets eclipsed by the story of the Mabul. Therefore, in this article, we are going to take the time to discuss the less spoken about topic, the Tower of Bavel.

The Midrash (Bereishis Rabba, Parshas Noach, 38:6) tells us that the sins of the Dor Hamabul are explained explicitly in the verse as it says, “Now the Rarth had become corrupt before God, and the earth had become filled with robbery” (Parshas Noach, 6:11). This verse indicates that the Dor Hamabul were corrupt with immorality, and it also mentions explicitly that they were guilty of thievery.

However, the sin of the Dor Haflaga is not mentioned explicitly in the verses. All it says about the Dor Haflaga is that the people said, “Come let us build a city and a tower with its top in the heavens” (Parshas Noach, 11:4). The verse does not share with us the reason behind them building the tower.

This begs us to ask, “What was the sin of the Dor Haflaga?” There is apparently nothing wrong with building a city and a tower. On the contrary, building cities and towers are good for the economy, and there is nothing wrong with trying to build a solid financial infrastructure. So again, what was the sin in building a city and a tower?

In many sources (of which we will mention as we proceed) it says that the sin of the Dor Haflaga was that they possessed false philosophies and they had skewed hashkafos which leaned towards idolatry.

Although this may be true, we still need to understand their reason for building the city and tower. Let us share the following Midrash which will begin to explain their motivation behind building the city and tower.

In Bereishis Rabba (Parshas Noach, 38:6) it quotes a verse about the Dor Haflaga. In that verse it says that the people of the Dor Haflaga were of “Devarim Achadim” (a common purpose; Parshas Noach, 11:1). The Midrash explains that this means that they spoke words (Devarim) which were sharp (Chad, which is the root of the word Achadim) about the “one of a kind person” (Echad) named Avraham (who was alive at that time. See Yechezkel, 33:24 where it says, “Echad Haya Avraham” Avraham was unique), and they spoke out against Hashem Echad (which is also at the root of the word Achadim).

About Avraham they said, “He is a barren mule who cannot have children.” About God they said, “It was not fair that He chose to dwell in the Heavens whereas they were left to dwell below on Earth.” This, they claimed, gave God the “high ground” and the advantage to wage war against them and wipe them out in the same way that He had wiped out the Dor Hamabul.

Therefore, they decided to build a city with a tower. They planned to place an idol at the top of this tower with a sword in its hand in order to wage war against Hashem.

Since the Mabul occurred 1,656 years after the Creation of the World, they thought that every 1,656 years the Heavens would begin to totter and huge floods of water would be released which would have the capacity of wiping out the entire world.

Therefore, they built four towers, one in each direction (one in the northern hemisphere, a second tower in the south, a third tower in the west, and a fourth tower in the east. Our story picks up when they were already in Bavel which is in the east, meaning that the tower they built in Bavel was the last of the four). The purpose of these towers was in order to serve as support beams so that the skies would be prevented from opening up again thereby preventing another flood.

This Midrash begs us to ask a few more questions.

What motivated them to speak out against Hashem in such a sharp way?

Additionally, what motivated them to insult Avraham with such sharp words? Avraham was the nicest fellow you would ever meet. Why would they say such hurtful things about him? Why would Avraham’s barrenness generate such stinging comments?

Moreover, how could they think that a statue with a sword in its hand could wage war against Hashem? They may not have had access to today’s technology, but how could they entertain this absurd thought that a statue with a sword could kill God? How did they imagine that a stiff statue would somehow kill God in a battle?

Furthermore, how could they think that towers could prevent the skies from opening up? Although from our perspective they may have been consider to be a primitive society, still, did they completely loose their marbles? Did they ever see heavenly trap doors under which they could slip towers in order to prevent water from pouring out all over them?

Additionally, in Pirkei D’Rebbi Eliezer (chap. 24) it says that the Dor Haflaga were disgusted by Eretz Yisrael. Therefore, they moved away from Eretz Yisrael in order to live in Bavel (Parshas Noach, 11:2).

This raises another difficulty. Why were they so disgusted with Eretz Yisrael? There are some very nice places to vacation in Israel. Why did they flee from Israel as one who flees from a fire? What was so attractive about Bavel (Iraq)?

Moreover, when the verse says, “And Hashem descended to look at the city and tower which were built by B’nei Ha’adam” (the sons of man; Parshas Noach, 11:5), the Zohar (Parshas Noach, pg. 60b) comments that the words “B’nei Ha’adam” does not only mean “the Sons of Men,” but rather it also means that the Dor Haflaga were the sons of “Ha’adam”, “The Man,” as in “Adam Harishon.”

Although one could argue that we are all the sons of Adam Harishon, the Zohar is trying to compare the people of the Dor Haflaga to Adam Harishon, claiming that they were guilty of the same crime as Adam Harishon. Just as Adam Harishon rebelled against his Master and transgressed His commandment, so did the Dor Haflaga rebel against their Master and transgress against His commandment.

This Zohar is clearly drawing a link between Adam’s sin of the Eitz Hada’as and the Dor Haflaga’s sin of building the tower. This begs us to ask, “What is the connection between these two sins?”

Let us begin to share a fundamental teaching concerning the Dor Haflaga which will shed some more light on what was going on with the people in that generation.

The Tanchuma (Parshas Ha’azinu, #6), the Zohar (Parshas Ha’azinu, pg. 286b), and the Pirkei D’Rebbi Eliezer (chap. 24) say that before the rebellion of the Dor Haflaga, all people were under the direct authority of Hashem. However, once the Dor Haflaga sinned, Hashem split the people into seventy nations, gave them seventy different languages, dispersed them to live in seventy different countries, and placed them under the authority of seventy angels.

This meant that the people of the Dor Haflaga were placed under the authority of the stars, zodiac signs, and planets because the stars, zodiac signs and planets fall under the authority of the angelic realm. To be governed by angels means that they would be one step removed from Hashem. This meant that there would be a certain distance in the relationship between the people of the Dor Haflaga and Hashem.

This distance was not thrust upon them for no reason. Rather, the Dor Haflaga no longer wanted to be under Hashem’s direct influence. They chose to be governed by angels. The reason for this was because the Dor Haflaga knew about what Hashem had done to their ancestors who lived in the Dor Hamabul.

All the schools which existed in that generation taught from the same history books which spoke about how Hashem had wiped out the entire generation of the Dor Hamabul because of their sins.

The impression that the people of the Dor Haflaga had of Hashem was that He was, and still is, a “jealous and vengeful God” (Nachum, 1:2). Therefore, they no longer wanted to be governed by Him because He is too makpid, meaning that He is too strict, too farfrumt, He stands on ceremony too much, and He is too meticulous. They no longer wanted anything to do with Him.

Therefore, they decided that they wanted to be governed by the stars, planets, and zodiac signs, because they fall under the authority of the angels. They wanted to be governed by angels because they claimed that angels are not that makpid, they are not too strict, and they are not too meticulous. This would allow them to do whatever they wanted to do without having to be concerned with retribution.

In short, after hearing about what happened to the Dor Hamabul, the Dor Haflaga must have suffered from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome). They were petrified of being destroyed in the same way as the Dor Hamabul. They were so frightened of Hashem that they wanted to kill Him in order to remove that threat from ever materializing.

Therefore, they built towers with idols at their tops. The Shvilei Pinchas says that their reasoning behind this was as follows. The idols on top of the towers represented different angelic forces. They believed that if they worshipped those idols, they would be sending their prayers, wishes, and energy to the angels that they represented.

They believed that this would strengthen the angels. After strengthening the angels, they would ask those angels to return the favor by banning together to take God down. They wanted to kill this jealous and vengeful God altogether. After all, it was seventy to One!

This was very much like Greek mythology which maintained that there were many gods, and the gods could actually kill each other. This philosophy was also popular in the Greco-Roman world (see Rambam, Hilchos Avodasd Kochavim, chap. 1, halachos 1-2).

Obviously, such thoughts are heretical because our belief in One God means that there is no competition between Hashem and the angels. Angels were created by Hashem and they are completely subservient to Him.

The Shvilei Pinchas explains that this is why they were disgusted by Eretz Yisrael. It is because the Ramban (Parshas Acharei Mos, 18:25, regarding the verse that says that Eretz Yisrael will vomit out those who transgress the Torah) says that other countries are governed by various angels, whereas Eretz Yisrael falls under Hashem’s direct guidance.

This is precisely why the Dor Haflaga could not stand living in Eretz Yisrael. It is because they did not want to fall under the direct governance of Hashem. They thought that Hashem was way too strict. They ran to Chutz La’aretz in order to escape Hashem’s authority. In Bavel, or any other country other than Eretz Yisrael, they would fall under the leadership of angelic beings whom they perceived to be much more lenient with people who transgress Torah law. This would allow them to live whatever lifestyle they chose without having to be concerned about retribution.

The Shvilei Pinchas says that this explains what motivated them to speak so sharply against Hashem. It is because they thought that Hashem chose to live in Heaven, the “high ground,” while placing mankind on Earth in order to give Hashem the advantage of successfully waging war against humankind whenever He thought that the inhabitants of Earth were disobeying Him.

The Dor Haflaga felt that this was not fair. They wanted to equalize the playing field, or better yet, they wanted to reverse it altogether so that they would have the advantage in warfare against Hashem. In this way, they would be able to kill God and rid the universe of this jealous and vengeful Being once and for all. This would enable them to live any kind of immoral life without the fear of cataclysmic punishment.

The Shvilei Pinchas adds that this explains how they intended to support the heavens with towers. The answer is that these towers, with idols at their tops, represented various angelic forces above. So it wasn’t that a physical tower could prevent the skies from opening. Rather, the Dor Haflaga were trying to recruit those angelic forces so that they would do the people’s bidding.

As we mentioned above, the Dor Haflaga believed that by worshipping these idols, which represented various angelic beings, they could empower those very angels. The Dor Haflaga bought into the philosophy which dictates, “I scratch your back, you scratch mine.” Their relationship with the angels was one of reciprocity. The people of the Dor Haflaga would commit themselves to further angelic worship which would make the angels even stronger than they were beforehand, on condition that they (the angels) would band together to do the people’s bidding.

In this case, the people of the Dor Haflaga wanted their angelic allies to support or monitor the heavens in such a way that they would never open up again in a destructive way that would bring total annihilation to the inhabitants of Earth. So again, it was not so much the towers themselves which would keep the heavenly gates closed, rather it was the angelic forces that those towers-idols represented who would do the job.

The Shvilei Pinchas says that we can now understand why the people of the Dor Haflaga insulted Avraham by saying that he was, “A barren mule who cannot produce children.” This statement was meant to prove their position with respect to the angel’s power. Let us explain.

The Gemara (Shabbos, chap. 24, “Mi Shihechshich”, pg. 156a) cites Rav who tells us about a dialogue which occurred between Avraham Avinu and Hakadosh Baruch Hu. Avraham complained to Hashem by saying, “I have built an empire. However, I do not have an heir to inherit me. The only person who will take over is my servant, Eliezer” (Parshas Lech Lecha, 15:3).

Hashem responded, “No Avraham, only he that will come forth from within you will inherit you and carry your torch” (Parshas Lech Lecha, 15:4). Avraham persisted, “How can You say that I will produce a child who will carry on after me when I have already seen my fate written in the stars. In the stars, it says that Avraham will not produce a child.”

Hashem responded again, “Will you stop looking at the stars already. They do not dictate your fate. I do. You are not bound by mazalos. I say that you will produce a child.”

We see from this Gemara that there was a conflict between the stars, which are governed by angels, and Hashem. The stars said that Avraham would remain childless. Hashem maintained that Avraham would have a child. Once Hashem promised Avraham that he would have a son , he put his trust in Hashem and not into the stars and angels.

However, at the time the people of the Dor Haflaga were building their towers, Avraham was still without child. To them this meant that the stars, or the angels who are in charge of the stars, won the debate that they had with Hashem.

This is what prompted them to say, “Avraham is a barren mule who cannot produce children.” This statement was meant to strengthen their position which was that it is possible for the angels to overpower Hashem. The Dor Haflaga argued that if the angels could prevent Avraham from having children in spite of the fact that Hashem guaranteed that he would have a child, then it is also possible for angels to overthrow God’s sovereignty altogether. Therefore, the Dor Haflaga placed their faith in the angels that they would do just that.

Obviously, the people in the Dor Haflaga did not realize that Hashem would eventually perform a miracle on behalf of Avraham and provide him with a child in spite of his old age.

By the way, since we, the descendants and spiritual heirs of Avraham, do exist, we are living testimonies that Hashem is stronger than the mazalos. Just by the fact the we, the Jewish people are alive, gives testimony that Hashem is the ultimate power. Hashem rearranged the entire celestial order in order that Avraham would have a child. Nothing can stop Hashem.

The Shvilei Pinchas says that now we can understand the comparison that the Zohar made between Adam Harishon’s sin with the Eitz Hada’as and the Dor Haflaga’s sin with building the towers.

The nachash told Adam and Chava that on the day that they would eat from the Eitz Hada’as, they would be like God (Parshas Bereishis, 3:5). If Adam ate from the Eitz Hada’as, it demonstrated that he bought into the sales pitch of the nachash. Eating from the Eitz Hada’as displayed that Adam wanted to be a god. For a person to think that he could be a god is idolatrous in nature.

This was precisely the thinking of the Dor Haflaga. They thought that there could be multiple gods. Therefore, the rebellion of the Dor Haflaga was similar to the sin of Adam Harishon.

As a means of a practical application of this teaching, let us try to show that we trust in Hashem alone, and not in the angels, because it is not just angels who can distract us from placing our trust in the One Hashem. There are other forces out there which we tend to place our trust in.

For example, some of us might place our trust in doctors, vaccines, a solid military, or in money. Therefore, there is one exercise that we could do on a daily basis to strengthen our Emunah in Hashem.

Each day, let us try to say at least the first Ani Ma’amin (of the Yud Gimmel Ikarim, Rambam, Pirush Hamishnayos, Meseches Sanhedrin, chap. 10). The first Principal of Faith says, “I believe with complete faith that the Creator, blessed be His Name, creates and guides all creatures, and that He alone made, makes, and will make everything.”

Let me be clear. We must go to doctors when necessary. We must take medication when needed. We must also ensure that we have a strong military, and we must also try to earn a living.

May I also add that we must have a tremendous amount of Hakaras Hatov to our medical professionals, we must be extremely grateful for our soldiers, and we must be very thankful for our employers.

However, we must also be constantly reminded that ultimately all success is dependent upon Hashem. We must realize that physicians are God’s agents. Their success is dependent on Hashem. Medication only works if Hashem says so. The success of our military is dependent on Syata d”Shmaya. Financial success depends on Hashem.

Strengthening our Emunah in Hashem would be one way of learning from the mistake of the Dor Haflaga.

So, may we all be blessed to be good little angels by learning from the mistake of the Dor Haflaga by placing our trust only in Hashem, and in that zechus may we deserve to be spared from any and all illnesses and tragedies, and may we subsequently merit to witness the building of a city by the hands of Hashem, but this time we are referring to the city of Yerushalayim with its TOWERING crown, the Beis Hamikdash, when we B’Nei Avraham will speak one language again, Lashon Hakodesh, Bimheira Biyameinu, Amen!

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