Torah reading: Genesis 6:9 through chapter 11.
Haftarah reading: Isaiah 54:1 - 55:5.
The majority of this week's Torah reading is devoted to the story of Noah, the flood and the ark. Genesis 6:9 through chapter 8. (Hence the name of the reading - Noach, or, in English, Noah. After Noah and his family and what is left of the world dry out, God imparts to Noah the Seven Laws of Noah, basic laws of morality that the Rabbis decreed were incumbant upon all human beings who are not Jewish. Genesis 9: 1-7. For the balance of chapter 9, Noah gets drunk and, when he wakes up and recovers from his hangover, curses his youngest son for mocking him while inebriated. Chapter 10 is another long list of "begots," and then we arrive at the story of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11: 11-9):
Now the whole world had one language and a common speech.
As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.
They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar.
Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”
But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building.
The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.
Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”
So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city.
That is why it was called Babel — because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.
The story is enigmatic. What are the people doing that makes an all-powerful God so upset? There is no danger of a tower reaching to heaven and threatening God; since skyscrapers supported by steel frames and elevators were invented in the late 19th century, we have built skyscrapers far taller than the Tower of Babel could possibly have been, with no threat to God.
In the Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer, compiled during the latter period of the compilation of the Talmud or within a few centuries thereafter, we read (at page 24):
If a person were to fall and die, no one would notice him; but if even a single brick were to fall, they would sit and cry, "Woe unto us, for when will another brick be brought up in its stead."What were the rabbis trying to say?
Were the ancient Mesopotamians living under some sort of communistic, anarchic system, where thousands somehow decided to build this tower and then they worked together to build it? And they were so devoted to this construction project that they cared nothing for their own lives, they were willing to fall to their deaths lest a single brick fall and shatter?
Or, was there a king, and an elite, that enslaved their population and forced slaves to build the tower. Or did they pay their people to build the tower, but cared so little for their workers that they cried when a brick fell, but didn't care when a worker fell to his death?
To me, the idea of bottom up, worker driven project, is hard to imagine, the latter scenario, with slave or paid labor, seems much more likely. And that leads up to the link that binds the ancient Mesopotamian elite to today's economic elite and the Republican politicians who do their bidding.
The infamous video of Mitt Romney speaking to his multi-millionaire donors includes a statement where, in my mind, he unites with the ancient Mesopotamian 1% and supports the bricks over the workers:
For so much of our history the economic elite have valued their bricks more than their workers. Even a child was valued less than a brick. The Ayn Rand ideologues who justify the greed of so much of the 1% would destroy the protections and gains workers have achieved through struggle, since the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911. So much depends on this election. We must not be reduced to industrial slaves building a new Tower of Babel. Any human being is infinitely more valuable than a brick.