Thursday, October 11, 2018

Parashat Noah 5779 The First Echo Chamber - Essay

Echoes of Eden
Rabbi Ari Kahn
The First Echo Chamber

The sin of Adam and Eve had brought about the exile from Eden, and their sin was soon followed by a heinous crime, perpetrated outside the Garden; from there, things deteriorated even more. 

As hard as it is to imagine a sin worse than murder,one could argue that the taking of Hevel’s life was unintentional: Perhaps Kayin did not know that his blows would lead to his brother's death. Kayin's act was a crime of passion, a singular act perpetrated by one individual. 

The generation of the flood was different: Sin became the norm. The entire generation was steeped in violence; people simply took by force whatever they wanted - possessions and people alike. In a culture dominated by power, might made right. Powerful men took whichever women they fancied. In those days there were no protests, no indignant op-eds, no Me Toohashtags; there wereonly victims. 

The world had become corrupt, and only one family was saved. Noah’s personal decency shielded his family, like an umbrella that protected his innermost circle from the rain and the flood that washed away everything and everyone that had been a part of that sinful, corrupt society.

After the story of Noah and his family winds down, the Torah chronicles a subsequent generation - the generation of the dispersion. 

The entire earth had one language with uniform words. When [the people] migrated from the east, they found a valley in the land of Shinar, and they settled there. They said to one another, 'Come, let us mold bricks and burn them.' They then had bricks to use as stone, and asphalt for mortar. They said, 'Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower whose top shall reach the sky. Let us make ourselves a name, so that we will not be scattered all over the face of the earth.'(Bereishit 11:1-4)

This generation was marked by unity, by a shared purpose and a common, agreed-upon goal. This seems to be a very positive, even admirable trait; indeed, the tone of the verses sounds encouraging, hopeful. The people of this generation want to remain unified, to live in peace and harmony.  Why did God find it necessary to intervene, to micro-manage, to disperse them? While the Torah doesn’t use the word “sin” to describe their project (a lacuna filled by rabbinic tradition), their fate makes it very clear: They were punished with exile and dispersion, scattered far and wide. And since no other crime is mentioned in the text, we must assume that their unity was the problem.

According to rabbinic tradition (Seder Olam Rabbah) many illustrious people were present when the tower was being built. Noah, now an elderly patriarch, was still alive; his children and their descendants were also in attendance. Also present was a relatively young man who would one day become famous; his name was Avraham.

The legends of Avraham the iconoclast who was thrown into the fiery furnace for espousing his belief in a singular, omnipotent God of Mercy, is closely intertwined with the episode of the tower. There, in the Valley of Shinar, a furnace was used to make bricks. The people involved in the project were unified in their quest, as well as in their desire to kill Avraham. Their particular brand of unity left no room for dissent.

The mindset of the generation of dispersion may be seen as a reaction to the experience of the previous generation: The "every man for himself" mentality had brought the flood; this new generation broke down all personal boundaries for the sake of unity, creating an atmosphere of enforced conformity. This generation lived in a self-imposed echo chamber, in which everyone was forced to espouse the same beliefs and aspire to the same goal. This generation did not seek salvation on a boat, but in a tower, a monolithic structure that represented their singular resolve and uniformity. This unity was preserved by expunging all dissonance -by eliminating all dissidents.

Avraham refused to fit in. He spoke about a kind, benevolent God, a God whom people in the post flood/holocaust generation could not accept. They rejected the notion that God is merciful; they refused to consider mercy a value. Some rabbinic sources suggest that this generation rejected the notion of God altogether. 

Avraham, the young, idealistic, ethical monotheist, expressed ideas which they found abhorrent, and with one unified voice they called for the murder of the man who would bring so much light to the world. 

Unity such as this, emboldened by sheer numbers and whipped into a murderous frenzy by anger and hatred, must be dismantled. The people who espoused it were not washed away or cast into their own furnace; they were separated, dispersed, their unity cast to the wind, waiting to be restored under a banner of peace through understanding, of harmony born of different voices - and of kindness. 

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