Parashat Noach 5778
The Wealth of Sharing Our Different Languages
This week’s parashah, as its name indicates, recounts the story of Noach; the flood, the ark, and the return to dry land. The famous story of the Tower of Babel appears at the end of the parashah.
The Torah tells that, at some point in history, all human beings spoke the same language: “And the whole earth was of one language and of one speech” (Bereishit 11:1). Everyone came together and decided to build a tower that would reach the heavens. With no reason given whatsoever, the Torah recounts that God intervened and made people speak several languages.
The question that arises from the text is why God intervened and caused human beings to speak different languages instead of just one, as they had done until then. What was the problem?
Some commentators explain that men, by means of construction and technology, tried to show how powerful they were, claiming that they were even capable of reaching the sky and competing with God Himself. In this light, God’s meddling is understandable, in the sense that human beings behaved badly, challenging the Divinity, and therefore, were punished through their being made to speak different languages.
There is an interesting explanation developed by a contemporary Jewish scholar, Isaiah Leibowitz z”l, that I would like to share with you. He does not understand God’s action as a punishment but, to the contrary, as a gift.
Leibowitz, in his book Parashat Hashavua, maintains that the people’s transgression was not to have built the tower but rather to have attempted that all people speak the same language, think the same way, hold the same values, without taking into account people’s differences.
God did not expect that of humankind; therefore, with mercy and clemency, He created a situation wherein differences, conflicts, and contradictions could happen.
Throughout the history of humankind, there have been many totalitarian governments that have not allowed people to distinguish themselves from the prevailing norm. Differences and contradictions in such societies are considered symbols of rebellion and cause for punishment. People have had to read and think only what was permitted by the government.
Nowadays, a large number of countries live under democratic governments that stimulate the differences among people and respect for different life views. But we live in an age where, unfortunately, there is a trend to adopt fundamentalist positions regarding the different spheres of life, creating situations wherein majorities have to obey a few, who dictate what is allowed as the truth and how each one must live his or her life.
On the personal level, we often expect everyone around us to think as we do. We cannot bear that a son decides to do something we haven’t agreed upon; that our partner does not think the way we do; that a friend behaves in a way totally opposite to ours. We find it difficult to understand that we are all different, with different feelings, thoughts, and beliefs.
When a single language, a single kind of thought, prevails in the family, in the social group, in the country, and in the entirety of humankind, it is a sign that something is not working well; it is a sign of danger and a warning.
May God make us appreciate the importance of enriching one another, accepting the differences among us and learning from them, without seeing them as a threat.
May we understand that arguments, conflicts, not agreeing with our fellow human beings, are valid ways of expressing our differences. God intervened so that each one could have another language, another way of thinking and seeing the world. The wonder of human beings is that we are all different and even so, if we apply ourselves to it, we can share our differences.