Noach: Travel From the East

Copyright 2015 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Noach

And it came to pass, as they journeyed east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there. (Bereshit/ Genesis 11:2)

Good morning!

Our Torah portion this week contains two famous stories: the flood and the Tower, each in its own way a story of human nature and our capacity for self-deception and its inevitable consequences. The generation that built the Tower toward heaven was entirely the descendants of Noach and his family, so it’s not surprising that they spoke one language and had some sense of power in their commonality. The building of the Tower is perhaps best understood as an attempt to supplant or become like God; thus the Divine decree of different languages, which means having to learn to communicate with each other, is a humbling reminder of our imperfect knowledge and abilities.

The verse above sets the stage for the rest of the story by putting this mass of people in one place, Shinar, which Rashi thinks is merely a plain big enough to hold everybody. On the other hand, another early midrash notices that in the previous chapter, some number of the descendants of Noach were already living at or by the “mountains of the east,” (cf. 10:30). This midrash asks: how could they travel from the east to go to the east? That doesn’t make sense! Rather, according to this text, they didn’t travel “from the East”, m’kedem, but away from God, who is called kadmon, or Ancient/ First One.

With this Hebrew pun, the rabbis remind us that the story of the Tower isn’t really about the Tower as an object, per se, but about the worldview of the people who built it. The tragedy of the Tower isn’t that people used their ingenuity to build something amazing, it’s that they thought that the only way to get a “name” for themselves was through the world of making, doing and owning, rather than through the virtues of caring, loving and justice. Among other things, faith means knowing our compassion and mercy are of infinite value even if they don’t make us immediately famous!

It seems that the generation of the Tower squandered their unity on a false premise; had they not “moved away from God,” as it were, they might have used that unity for a spiritual, humane purpose, and thus gotten themselves an even greater “name” than that of builders with brick and stone. We move “away from God” when we act out of our baser values, out of fear, insecurity or greed, and use our lives to build things which gratify the ego but don’t nourish the soul. Yet this cautionary tale ends on a hopeful note, the birth of Avram, who will symbolically journey back from east to west, from m’kedem back to Kadmon, the most Ancient Source of life itself.

Shabbat Shalom,

The views expressed are my own and do not reflect that of Vassar Brothers Medical Center or Health-Quest.

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