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Noah 5760-1999

“Does the Torah ever distort the truth?”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

There is a fascinating and enlightening story brought down in Genesis 11, of this week’s parasha, Noah. It is generally known as the story of the Tower of Babel, or the story of the dispersion of humankind.

The Parasha relates that all of the people on Earth spoke one language and were of a common purpose. When they migrated from the East, they found a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there. They said to one another, “Come let us make bricks and burn them in fire.” Basically this was a technologically precocious society that had developed a number of innovative technological developments, but got carried away by their talents and their hubris. Until their recent discoveries, homes were always built out of mud bricks, but because of the mud bricks’ instability, buildings could not be very high. The technological innovation of the people of Shinar was to burn and glaze the bricks, making them solid and firm. With the addition of clay for mortar, the people of Shinar could begin to build the first skyscraper.

The Torah in Genesis 11:4 records the people saying: “Come let us a build a city and tower, with its top in heaven, and let us make a name for ourselves lest we be dispersed across the whole earth.”

According to Jewish tradition, the people of Shinar literally worshiped technological innovation to such an extent that as they built the tower, if a brick fell and was smashed, they would call a halt to building for seven days and sit shiva, but if a person fell off the tower, they would ignore the incident. Of course, in our own day and age, we see how very often technology takes precedence over human life as well.

Genesis 11:5 is a challenging verse which opens a Pandora’s box for traditional students of the Bible. The verse reads, “Vayered Hashem Lirot et Ha’eer v’et hamig’dal.” And G-d descended to look at the tower which the sons of man had built, and G-d said: “Behold they are one people with one language for all, and this is what they begin to do, and now should it not be withheld from them all they propose to do. Come let us descend and confuse their language, that they should not understand one another’s language.”

According to the Midrashic interpretation, the people of the Tower of Babel proposed to build a tower that would challenge G-d’s authority. In response to this challenge, G-d proceeds to mix up the people’s language so they will no longer be in a position to build. One person asked for a brick, and another responded by throwing a hammer at his head. Because of the confusion, the building had to stop. The people were dispersed over the face of the earth, which according to the Bible explains the origin of diverse human languages.

Of all the books known to humankind, certainly the Torah, the five books of Moses, more than any other writing, has revolutionized the human’s conception of G-d. Until the time of the Torah, human beings possessed a paganistic and primitive perception of G-d, usually in the form of the sun, the moon, a tree, or a stone. The Torah revolutionized the world by teaching that G-d is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent, without form or shape. Nevertheless, in the Tower of Babel episode, the Torah does not hesitate to describe G-d in thoroughly anthropomorphic terms. “Vayered Hashem lirot,” and G-d came down to see the city and the tower which the sons of man had built.” This statement goes completely against everything the Torah presumes to teach. After all, an omniscient G-d doesn’t need to come down! Could this statement possibly be the result of some sloppy editing which allowed some unseemly references of some earlier pagan editors to remain in the story? Surely the Torah frequently uses anthropomorphic terms: G-d saw, G-d heard, G-d spoke. But to say that G-d “came down” goes against everything that the Torah is trying to teach.

And if this were not enough, in parashat Va’yerah, which we will read in two weeks, we find a similar reference. We learn of the people of Sodom, the worst people on the face of the earth, and clearly deserving of destruction. Genesis 18:20 reads: “Za’akat S’dom v’Amorah kee rabah,” Because the outcry of Sodom and Gomorrah has become so great, and because their sin has been very grave. “Erdah nah v’er’eh ha’k’tzakatah haba’ah eli a’su kalah, v’im lo, aydah’ah” (Verse 21), I (says G-d) will descend and see if they act in accordance with its outcry which has come to me–then destruction! And if not, I will know. According to the Midrash, the people of Sodom were so wicked that they had institutionalized wickedness: vice was virtue, and virtue had become vice. Because Sodom was so wealthy, the residents passed a law that no poor could live there. In fact one of the popular sports was to watch as the poor died of starvation.

The Sodom Federal Bureau of Investigation was keeping an eye on a particular emaciated man who was dying of hunger, when they suddenly noticed that he was no longer dying. They suspected that someone was feeding him, and they discovered that Chutzpit, the daughter of Lot, was secreting food to him. After she was apprehended, she was sentenced to be burned alive at the stake. According to the Midrash, the Hebrew word “hatz’a’kata,” her cry–-refers to the girl screaming for her life. G-d says, “I will hear the cries of this woman, and if they are legitimate then I will destroy Sodom, and if not I will know.”

Once again we encounter the same troubling concept of G-d “coming down.” Is G-d hard of hearing? Is He so near-sighted that He cannot know what is going on without coming down?! An omniscient G-d would surely know.

From both of these troublesome references we learn a very profound lesson about Torah. While the Torah is certainly a history book, and certainly a philosophy book, it is primarily a guide to promote ethical and moral living. Whenever there is a conflict between an ethical truth and a philosophical truth, the ethical truth always prevails!

Consequently, the Torah is not so concerned that Buchwald may come and say, “What’s going on here, I thought that G-d was supposed to be omniscient? How could the Torah say that G-d comes down?” The reason for this unusual description is because by describing Himself as having to come down, G-d is able to teach an ethical lesson that is even more important than the concepts of omniscience and omnipotence. Of course, G-d doesn’t have to come down, He knows exactly who is sinful and who is innocent, but by depicting Himself as coming down, G-d shows His total concern for truthfulness and correctness in judgment. If G-d, so to speak, has to come down, to check on the guilt of the people of Babel, or the people of Sodom, the most wicked people on the face of the earth, then you, judge of flesh and blood, when you sit in judgment of your brothers and sisters, make sure that you spare no effort to uncover every iota of truth!

Unbelievable as it might seem, more important than teaching the lessons of G-d’s omniscience and omnipotence, is the lesson of proper behavior in judgment! That is the primary lesson of the Torah. That is the purpose of all G-d’s teachings. How fortunate are we, the people of Israel, to be designated with the honor of being the emissaries of His message!

May you be blessed.