Friday, October 20, 2017

Shabbat Noah: Love and Language

            Shabbat Shalom! This week’s Torah portion is Parashat Noah. It contains the story of the Flood and the Ark, as well as the story of the Tower of Babel. Given their proximity, the rabbis of the classical midrash (Bereshit Rabbah) ask, “Why was the generation of the Flood utterly destroyed, but not the generation of the Tower? Because the generation of the Flood were consumed by robbery and violence, while amongst the generation of the Tower, love prevailed.” Yet, we know that the generation of the Tower were also guilty of some misdeed that upset God, causing their tower to collapse and their languages to be warped, and community to be scattered.  
            Maybe it is worth asking: what was the love that prevailed in the generation of the Tower? What was their one tongue saying? I heard another midrash from a colleague yesterday, though he didn't attribute it, so I'm not sure where he got it from. He said that while the people of what would become Babel built up the tower, they were so frenzied about the project, that if a brick fell from the heights of the tower in process, they would be devastated to have lost a building tool. But if a person fell, they didn't care, because since everyone was of one mind, they all knew someone else would step in immediately and there was no loss to the building project.
            If the generation of the Tower was consumed with love for the Tower, or the project, or the name they were making for themselves, without regard for the sanctity of life, then it would explain why they merited the destruction of their project and the scattering of their community. But if they weren’t actively violent, pushing each other off the tower, stealing each other’s building tools, consumed with making a greater name for each self rather than the collective, then it stands to reason that they could not be considered as evil as the generation of the Flood, who was said to have acted really cruelly and to have committed grotesque crimes.
            In theory, the idea of all speaking one language, both literally and figuratively, being all of one mind for a singular group project, sounds like a great community. But if that group endeavor leads to individuals being forgotten or uncared for, to the point where they could slip off the tower and nobody sought to save them or mourn them, then it is actually quite troubling. It feels reminiscent of a Twilight Zone episode, or any number of great novels. On the surface of the story, the society is a utopia. Everyone gets along, the greater good is always considered, and everyone is determined to work together toward a common goal. But as soon as one character looks a little deeper, or voices concerns, it turns out that the world in which they live is actually quite dystopian. Everyone seems as if they are all of one mind, because their minds are being controlled or because they have simply been made too afraid to speak out.  There wouldn’t be so many stories of such societies across generations and continents if it wasn’t a real concern people have.
That concern can manifest in many different ways. It’s not always an oppressive dystopian governmental body controlling people’s brains that can cause the effect of a singular language among people who secretly all know something is wrong. While it’s nice to get along with our neighbors, sometimes it is worth asking ourselves when the time has come to speak up. Sometimes bad things, especially hurtful words, are allowed to be perpetuated because it would be too uncomfortable or considered confrontational to call someone out on their offensive behavior, and then the person in question continues to behave oppressively because they think that everyone else in their position or who shares an identity or experience with them agrees with their offensive stance on those of a different identity or experience.    
Please, this week as we keep in mind the dangers of being of a singular language, listen carefully to the language you hear around you, and if you hear things you know you shouldn’t, call it out. Do not stand idly by bigoted or abusive words, for words can lead to actions, and actions can lead to much greater communal fractures than dissent might. Do not wait until God descends to see the Tower of arrogance and scatters the community completely. Speak out and stand up, and may your own voice be heard by all. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.   

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