Today's parasha contains two great stories: the story of the Flood and the story of the Tower of Babel. I hope to explain how each of these stories describes an extreme of human misbehavior, but how each of us contains elements of these within us. I will suggest that we all have a tendency more toward one or the other kind of sin described in each story. Finally, I will invite us to think of these two stories as complementary parts of an overall whole of what it means to be human.
But first I want to introduce something that might be a little confusing. I hope if I take it step by step you'll be able to follow me. This is one of those situations where if you could read it you could probably follow it readily, but hearing makes it a little harder to track. I'm hoping that if you can follow me it will open up another way to understand the Story of the Flood and the Story of the Tower of Babel.
Most of the source material I want to cite comes from an article by Rabbi Joseph Soleveitchik, called "How a Jew is Like a Torah." It's a long article and most of it is very detailed in halachic descriptions. I want to skip all of that and focus on a few points Rav Soleveitchik makes, which are more akin to metaphors.
The first of these is that just as the animal hide must be stretched and scraped and cleaned in order to become parchment and receive the ink and hold the letters of the Torah clearly and indelibly, so too must the human personality be stretched and cleaned and scraped in order to receive God's instructions and hold it clearly and permanently. That is, there is a parallel between preparing the parchment to write the Torah on and preparing the human personality to receive the words of Torah.
The next stage of this parallel is a bit more detailed but try to stay with me. The animal hide used to prepare the parchment has an upper side and an under side. The under side is that which is in contact with the animal's flesh. It is called, appropriately enough, the flesh side. When this side is scraped and cleaned and processed, it is used for the parchment of the mezuzuh. Rav Soloveitchik writes that the words on the mezuzah come to correct the sins of the unprocessed flesh side of the human personality. That is, the processed flesh side of the animal hide contains the instructions for how to correct the sins of the unprocessed flesh side of our human personality. And just one final extension: These sins of the flesh, of the unprocessed side of the human personality, are what we find described in the Generation of the Flood.
The opposite side of the animal hide, the upper side with all the hair -- is called the hairy side. When this side of the animal hide is processed it becomes the parchment the tefillin is written on. Rav Solevitchik writes that the words of the tefillin come to correct the sins of the unprocessed hairy side of the human personality -- which he describes as our tendency toward cruelty. These sins of cruelty are what we find in the story of the Tower of Babel. So with that general overview, let's look in more detail at each of these stories, and what the passages in the mezuzah and the tefillin can help us understand about them.
As I mentioned, Rav Soloveitchik associates the sins of the side of the flesh with the Generation of the Flood. The Torah describes their wantonness in today's portion, where God says: "The end of all flesh is come before Me; for the earth is filled with violence through them; and behold, I will destroy them with the earth." Theirs is the sin of "whatever goes", "If I feel like it, it's okay." The divisions of morality, natural or established by religion, are washed away by the breakdown of boundaries.
You don't have to be of the Generation of the Flood to be able to appreciate the temptations of the flesh to which we are all prey. Whether it's the extra piece of dessert, the two more beers, or that hot young thing on the exercise bike in the gym: none of us with a beating pulse are impervious to these temptations and all of us must learn to curb these appetites if we are not to fall prey to the sins of the flesh, the sins of the Generation of the Flood.
The mezuzah, which is written on the processed flesh side of the animal hide, comes to protect us from the unprocessed flesh side of our personality. It contains the paragraphs of the Shma: veahavata et Adonai Elohecha. The mezuzah stands at the entrance to our personal home, reminding us that all that is personal to us, symbolized by our home, must be contained within this protective shield. If we love God with all our soul and all our might as the passage in the mezuzah commands us, then these desires -- which are given to us by God -- can be contained and protected as well. It is not to lose the appreciation for a thing of beauty, or an incredible taste, or a healthy appetite of any kind. But it is to always remember that these appetites are part of our opportunity to experience God's created world, and if we don't follow certain rules we are straying from the path and things will not go well for us. This is the warning of the story of the Flood -- if you don't manage your appetites, you will be washed away by them.
As mentioned, if the flesh side and its appetites corresponds to the Generation of the Flood, then the hairy side corresponds to cruelty and the story of the Tower of Babel. The sin of the generation of the Tower of Babel is that their vision became their god, and people got hurt in the process. One Midrash writes of the Tower of Babel that "When a brick would fall and break, all of them would cry over it; when a person who was working on the Tower would fall and die, no one would look around for him." In Rav Soloveitchik's article, written in 1959, he used the examples of Kruschev and the Soviet Union and Mao Tse-tung and Red China, whose ideologies created unimaginable cruelty to the human beings who were supposed to be lifted to the heavens by them.
The Zohar describes a similar process but in more mystical terms. The Zohar contrasts the active language used to describe the building of the Tower -- "come, let us build a tower to reach to the heavens" -- with the passive language used to describe the building of the Temple, where in First Kings it says: "VeHabayit, behibanato" "And the Temple, in its being built." Why is the Temple building described in this passive way? According to the Zohar, the artisans looked at each stone and the stone itself gave instructions on how to use them and in this sense the Temple was built by itself, according to Divine will. When we are completely aligned, we know just what to do effortlessly and spontaneously, and things seem to fall into place perfectly and of their own accord. When our ego gets involved, however, it is the product we are after primarily, and we run roughshod over the process and sometimes people in order to get there.
In today's parasha, God looks at these human plans for building the Tower to the heavens and moves in to stop them by confusing the people's ability to understand each other, which leads to a breakdown of their plans for reaching to the heavens. What we see, as this story of the Tower of Babel replays itself out over and over again through human history, is that any time a single movement gains power, if it is based on egoic ends, it can only go so far before it inevitably splits into different factions, with people grappling with each other for their version of the truth. It's as if there's a built in safety mechanism to the limits of human ideology. If it is not truly leshem shamayim -- for the sake of heaven -- it can only go so far.
The upper or hairy side of the skin must be processed to receive the words used in the tefillin. The tefillin contain the same two paragraphs of the Shma which are used in the mezuzah but also have two additional paragraphs describing the need for tefillin and the exodus from Egypt. This exodus, as we know well from the Passover story, describes how Jews were released from Pharaoh's Tower of Babel. But God didn't liberate us to be like the Generation of the Flood, to do whatever we felt like. God liberated us to receive the Torah, to experience God centered freedom, a freedom based on Divine restriction and direction, not human restriction and direction.
I can think of a gazillion ways these two stories show up in our lives but I will choose only two to illustrate.
What makes us Conservative Jews, besides the fact that we are not Reform and not Orthodox? I think we stand squarely in the cross hairs of these two pulls. In one direction: assimilation and immersion into the secular culture of anything goes. We very readily understand and are tugged at by the attractions of a life without rules and boundaries -- who wants to keep kashrut or Shabbat or all those other religious rules which maintain our integrity as observing Jews? Even within a synagogue it is tempting, especially in the name of inclusion and openness, to loosen boundaries so that all are welcome and no one feels excluded. But in so doing we also risk losing the distinctiveness of what makes us a holy community. The word kadosh itself means "separate."
In the other direction, of the more religiously observant, there can be a seductive pull of buying the whole package and living by it. There is great power in living according to an overall ideology, and I think this is what God centered Judaism makes possible. But this ideology, especially when fueled by a sense of divine command but translated by limited humans, can sometimes result in a form of spiritual cruelty, where the smallest deviations from the unified norm are cause for moral judgment.
I think each of us leans more in one direction than the other. I lean more in the direction of the Generation of the Dispersion. That is, I have a greater tendency toward rigidity than I do toward licentiousness, toward being judgmental about myself and others than toward gorging and guzzling and wife swapping.
I think, however, that these tendencies we express are really partial pictures of an overall whole. My love of structure stems, in part, from a distrust of appetite, just as some people's pull toward no rules may come from their mistrust of the very boundaries which could help them lead happier and more productive lives.
What I have seen in my work as a couple's therapist, and here I come to my second common example, is that this is one of the "opposites attract" truisms: you will see a pairing between a Generation of the Flood type with a Generation of the Dispersion type. The way this sounds in my office is an argument that goes something like this:
"I would love to come home one time and find the house clean and orderly and the kids not running wild and dinner ready. Is that too much to ask?"
"And I would love to have a partner who appreciates me for who I am and isn't constantly judging me."
"I'm not judging you. I just would like to have someone who shares a sense of responsibility so I don't feel like I'm the only adult in this house."
"You are too judging me. You don't appreciate who I am as a person. You only appreciate what I do, not who I am."
This may sound familiar to some of you. The view I take when working with couples is that we choose our partners to balance something which is unbalanced within us, so that we become more whole. So the reason a Generation of the Flood type hooks up with a Generation of the Dispersion type is not to drive each other crazy but to access more of who God created us to be by learning to balance our imbalance through our partner's influence. Here is the meaning of holding these two polarities as separate parts which contribute to an overall whole.
I'll end this drash by quoting from Rav Soloveitchik's summation of how the Jew is like a Torah scroll, where he describes the natural end point of processing our internal and external sides:
"When a person binds both his flesh, his desires and his hair, his callousness, and brings these two sacrifices, the human personality transforms into parchment -- processed on both sides, sanctified, and purified -- on which is written the great 'internal' scroll, whose holiness shines forth and sanctifies all that a Jew touches."