Peace: The Receptacle For All Blessings
In the commentaries we find that two generations grievously sinned and were punished as a result: The generation of the flood and the generation of the Tower of Babel. However there exists a great difference between them with regards to the sins they committed and the punishments they received.
Concerning the generation of the flood, it is written, “Now the earth had become corrupt before G-d; and the earth had become filled with robbery” (Genesis 6:11). Rashi states that “the earth had become corrupt” refers to immorality and idolatry (see Sanhedrin 57a). It is also written, “The end of all flesh has come before Me” (Genesis 6:13), meaning that “anarchy accompanies immorality and idolatry wherever it is found” (Yerushalmi Sotah 1:5). Similarly the Sages have said, “With hot passion they sinned, and by hot water they were punished” (Sanhedrin 108b). The Sages also said, “The waters of the flood fell for 40 days and 40 nights, which corresponds to the number of days of the embryo’s development in the womb, for they forced the Creator to make illegitimate offspring” (Yalkut Shimoni 56). Concerning the verse, “They took themselves wives from whomever they chose” (Genesis 6:2), Rashi says that they even took “a married woman, even a man or an animal” (see Yalkut Shimoni 43). They were so perverted that even domestic animals, wild animals, and birds mated with species other than their own (see Rashi on Genesis 6:12).
Despite these grievous sins, the fate of the generation of the flood was not sealed until they committed robbery (Sanhedrin 108a), for “the earth had become filled with robbery” (Genesis 6:11). This clearly demonstrates the gravity of stealing, for although the generation of the flood committed all kinds of transgressions, its fate was sealed only because of theft.
The question becomes self-evident: Why were immorality and idolatry, two of the Torah’s three principle sins, not sufficient to provoke the punishment of the generation of the flood? Why was it precisely robbery that tipped the scales and provoked the decision to erase them from the earth?
Another question is raised by Rabbi Aryeh Leib. The Sages say, “The L-rd of Mercy does not inflict suffering on human beings first” (Vayikra Rabba 17:4). G-d warns them first, and if they pay no attention to these warnings He afflicts their possessions, followed by their homes and their clothing. It is only when these punishments are ineffective (meaning that they do not lead people to repent and correct their sins) that G-d afflicts a person himself, in his body. Yet for the generation of the flood, we see no warnings whatsoever being given, and it is stated: “I will blot out Man whom I created” (Genesis 6:7).
Contrary to this, we see that the men of the generation of the Tower of Babel said, “Come, let us build us a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed across the whole earth” (Genesis 11:4). What was their goal? They wanted to build a tower and climb to the heavens with axes to fight against G-d (Sanhedrin 109a), as if that were even conceivable! What was their punishment? They were scattered about the world, as it is written: “The L-RD dispersed them from there over the face of the whole earth” (Genesis 11:8).
Here too a certain number of questions arise, which we shall explain:
1. Is it not surprising that the punishment of these men, who knew their Master and rebelled against Him to the point of wanting to climb to the heavens to fight Him, was only to be dispersed? Why only the punishment of exile – to be sent to all the corners of the earth – and not more? We do not see the generation of the flood rebelling against G-d, but only allowing themselves to be carried away by their desires. Yet they were totally destroyed, erased from this world, and according to one opinion they were excluded from the World to Come (Sanhedrin 108a). Why was the punishment of the generation of the flood much more severe than that of the generation of the Tower of Babel, which blasphemed?
2. We must also understand how, after the flood, there could exist ungrateful men and sinners who renounced G-d and thought they could fight against Him. Is it possible that they could be so foolish? Did they not know that it is truly impossible to reach Heaven and fight against G-d?
3. The verse “The L-RD descended to look at the city and the tower which the sons of man built” (Genesis 11:5) also needs to be explained, for it implies that G-d Himself descended. This is a difficult thing to understand, for does G-d – Whose Glory fills the world and Who knows all its mysteries – need to “descend” in order to know what men are doing on earth? Even though the Sages explain that “this teaches men to not judge the accused before having personally examined and verified the facts” (Tanhuma 58:18), G-d knows what men are doing. Therefore why did He Himself have to descend?
4. Why did G-d punish them by confounding their language and dispersing them throughout the world? Why not some other punishment, such as the loss of their wealth, a plague, the death of some of them (which would have frightened the others and caused them to flee), or some other penalty?
5. We also need to ask ourselves why, after having finished the account of the flood and the Tower of Babel, the Torah recounts how Abraham was tested: “Go for yourself from your land, from your relatives, and from your father’s house…” (Genesis 12:1), yet we are not told about the miracle of Ur Kasdim. Abraham was thrown into a fiery furnace by Nimrod (Bereshith Rabba 38:13) and miraculously saved, however the Torah only tells us of Abraham’s departure from Ur, not the astounding miracle that occurred there. This is surprising and also needs to be explained.
The Sages teach, “For transgressions between man and the Omnipresent, the Day of Atonement procures atonement. However for transgressions between man and his fellow, the Day of Atonement does not procure atonement until he has pacified his fellow” (Yoma 85b).
The sins committed by men against one another (such as theft, blackmail, and slander) are also transgressions against G-d. This is because He prohibits us from doing these things, especially since the person victimized by his fellow, be it physically or financially, is “G-d’s creation” (Ecclesiastes Rabba 3:14). A man who has committed a sin against his fellow will only obtain forgiveness from G-d once he has obtained the forgiveness of his fellow. It is only then that the Celestial Court will forgive his sin.
The Sages have said, “Spreading gossip about your fellow is equivalent to renouncing G-d” (Erachin 15a). By speaking ill of your fellow, who was created in G-d’s image, you irritate G-d Himself. It is for this reason that sins committed against others are only forgiven once peace is made and forgiveness obtained, so as to restore G-d’s image; only then does G-d forgive. Shaming and scoring another person is tantamount to despising the image of G-d that is in him, and spreading gossip about another is to speak ill of G-d’s image. One who acts in this way will himself lose his resemblance to G-d. It is only once the victim forgives the offender, and they are reconciled to one another, that the sin is forgiven and the image of G-d restored. G-d forgives at that point, and the sinner can continue to live in this world and the other. This is not the case for sins committed against G-d, such as not wearing Tefillin or transgressing Shabbat. By wholeheartedly repenting of these sins, the wrong committed is instantly rectified, and in His goodness G-d immediately accepts a person’s repentance and his sin is straightaway forgotten.
What we have said deals only with individual sins perpetrated by a man against his fellow. However for the collective transgressions of a community (for example, when everyone speaks ill of others, or when everyone steals, extorts, or destroys), the sin is a hundredfold worse. The image of G-d disappears completely from such a community, for by their deeds everyone has renounced G-d. It is then that G-d inflicts a collective punishment upon it, given that everyone is equally at fault, and at that point G-d shows no mercy.
We are now in a position to answer our questions. G-d gave the generation of the flood a reprieve of 120 years to repent (Tanhuma Noah 5), since it is a fact that G-d is patient and waits for a sinner to return to Him on his own, as it is written: “I do not desire the death of the wicked one, but rather the wicked one’s return from his way, that he may live” (Ezekiel 33:11). This is why G-d did not punish these men for their immorality and idolatry, which are sins against Him. However when they began to steal and deceive their fellowmen, the image of G-d left them. G-d patiently waited 120 years before punishing them, the length of time for the Ark’s construction. During that entire period, Noah warned them concerning the approaching flood so that they might sincerely correct their sins against their fellowmen. However they did not repent, and G-d executed the judgment against them.
The Sages say, “Although the generation of the flood transgressed all laws, their decree of punishment was sealed only because they stretched out their hands to rob” (Sanhedrin 108a). This refers to sins against their fellowmen, which G-d does not forgive unless the victim has forgiven. Given that everyone was stealing from everyone else (it was total anarchy), and that nobody asked for forgiveness – nor did they even apologize for the harm they caused – they were all liable to the penalty of death decreed by G-d. We therefore understand why it is precisely theft, a sin perpetrated by man against his fellow, which sealed their fate. It was not immorality or idolatry that did so, for these are sins perpetrated against G-d.
Since G-d “does not inflict suffering on human beings first,” why did He not first warn them, then take away their goods, their wealth, homes, and finally afflict their bodies? Here G-d immediately blotted out man whom He had created. The reason is because if G-d had punished one of them by taking away his sustenance, instead of suffering, that person would have stolen what he lacked from his neighbor, and so evil would have spread without end and have only become worse. “The earth had become filled with robbery” (Genesis 6:11) means that everyone had become so accustomed to stealing that they no longer feared any punishment, and nothing could stop them. This is why G-d gave them no further reprieve and sealed their fate.
The generation of the Tower of Babel was different than that of the flood. Although they did not act with faith, they still knew that G-d grants a reprieve and forgives sins committed against Him, which is not the case with sins committed by men against their fellowmen. Hence they were careful not to sin with respect to each other, this in order to avoid the fate of the generation of the flood. Their interpersonal relations remained acceptable.
Unfortunately, the language they shared through lip service, as well as their mutual expressions of love and goodwill, were not sincere. To free themselves of fear and to live as they pleased, they plotted a war against G-d – as if such a thing were possible – for they wanted to liberate themselves of every obligation. However they kept far from theft, and “the whole earth was of one language and of the same words” (Genesis 11:1) in order to avoid divine wrath.
Their mutual love and goodwill rested only on their fear of G-d’s anger, and they began to build a tower whose summit was to have reached heaven. Obviously they had no real intention of actually reaching it, since that is impossible, however they wanted this tower to symbolize to the whole world their desire to fight G-d. If they had possessed the ability to build a tower that would have actually reached heaven, they would have done so without hesitation.
Such was that generation’s level of perversion. They feared that G-d would punish them, as He had punished the generation of the flood, yet they were not afraid to fight G-d Himself. To demonstrate their rebellion, they began to build a tower that would have, had they been capable of the feat, reached heaven.
It is written, “The L-RD descended to look” (Genesis 11:5), which means that G-d penetrated to the depths of their thoughts and saw the true reason behind their “love” for their fellowman. It consisted of nothing other than a fear of punishment, whereas in their hearts they hated each other. Nevertheless, “Intention that does not bear fruit, the Holy One, blessed be He, does not combine with deed” (Kiddushin 40a). This is why He did not wipe them out, but instead punished them in proportion to their sin. They outwardly expressed that they were unified with “one language and…the same words,” which is why their language was confounded, as it is written: “It was there that the L-RD confused the language of the whole earth” (Genesis 11:9). The Sages have said that when their language was confounded and they could no longer understand one another, they killed each other: “Thus one said to his fellow-worker, ‘Bring me water,’ whereupon he would give him earth, at which point he struck him and split his skull; ‘Bring me an axe,’ but he brought him a spade, at which point he struck him and split his skull” (Bereshith Rabba 38:10). They were going to build a city with the intention of being united, and G-d paid them back, measure for measure, in that they were divided and dispersed throughout the world. In wickedness this generation surpassed the generation of the flood, for in the depths of their hearts they had no love for one another. Without faith in G-d, by renouncing Him and rebelling against Him, one cannot love one’s fellow. Yet because they did not commit any actually sins with regards to their fellowman, their punishment was only exile, not annihilation, as was the case with the generation of the flood.
Concerning them it is said, “Behold, they are one people with one language for all” (Genesis 11:6), and previous to that: “The whole earth was of one language” (v.1). This means that their love for one another was only in words and expressions; it did come from the depths of their hearts. G-d confounded their language before it was too late, for if the situation had deteriorated, each of them would have come to openly hate his fellowman and have fought him to the death. G-d would then have had no choice but to once again wipe everyone out, as He did at the time of the flood. Now G-d had already promised that there would never again be another flood on the earth (Genesis 9:11), which is why He dispersed them to the four corners of the world.
The text continues: “Now nothing which they purpose to do will be withheld from them” (Genesis 11:6). Everyone thought ill of his fellowman up to that point, but they did not act lest they suffer the fate of the generation of the flood. Henceforth they would abandon their fear, and so “nothing which they purpose to do will be withheld from them.” They would have murdered one another, forcing G-d to destroy the world. Therefore they had to be dispersed and separated from one another as soon as possible.
G-d thus demonstrated His mercy and kindness. He did not wipe them out, but rather punished them measure for measure by scattering them throughout the world. They gave up on building the city at that point. Nevertheless, these liable to death by fire were burned in the tower itself, and each person received the punishment he deserved.
This allows us to understand the name that was given to this generation: Dor Haflaga (“The Generation of the Dispersion”). This is because they wanted to separate, cut-off, and completely detach themselves from G-d, Who punished them as a result. In reality, “Knowing [one’s] Master, and yet purposely rebelling against Him” (Rashi on Genesis 10:9) cannot go hand in hand with loving your fellowman. It is impossible to love your fellow if you do not love G-d, and it is impossible to love G-d without loving your fellow, for these feelings are mutually dependent.
The Torah commands, “You shall love your fellow as yourself. I am the L-RD” (Leviticus 19:18). You must love your fellow and infuse yourself with G-d’s love. Concerning this verse, Rabbi Akiva said, “This is a great principle of the Torah” (Yerushalmi Nedarim 9:4). Why is this so? Because by loving our fellowman, we in fact love the image of G-d that is in him, and so we naturally come to loving G-d. This is the meaning of “You shall love your fellow as yourself,” for your fellow also carries the image of G-d in him, which is why you must love him.
When the Jewish people stood at Mount Sinai, it is written: “Israel encamped there, opposite the mountain” (Exodus 19:2). Our Sages explain this to mean, “As one person, with one heart.” In other words, to receive the Torah – to stand in front of Mount Sinai and hear G-d’s words – they had to be united by a mutual love and act as a single person. Unity and love for one’s fellowman gives a person the merit to receive the Torah. This is what constitutes “a great principle of the Torah.”
There is a profound difference between the generation of the flood and that of the dispersion. Before the flood, as long as the generation sinned exclusively with regards to immorality and idolatry, G-d gave them the time to repent, for these sins were committed solely against Him. However when they began to steal and sin against their fellowman, they lost the image of G-d. Thus there was no further hope that they would rectify their ways, which is why they were immediately destroyed.
Such was not the case with the generation of the dispersion, which was more corrupt. These men revolted against the Master of the world, yet they were cordial and demonstrated love and goodwill to one another. Even though their love was not sincere, G-d in His infinite mercy did not completely wipe them out, but only dispersed them in order to prevent them from actually sinning against each other. The Sages have said, however, that for being guilty with respect to G-d, “The generation of the dispersion has no portion in the World to Come” (Sanhedrin 109a). For having rebelled against G-d, they no longer deserved to stand in His presence.
All this allows us to understand why the Torah does not describe the miracle that happened to Abraham in Ur Kasdim, and also why it fails to mention how Nimrod threw him into a fiery furnace or how he was saved. Abraham did not bow before idols, he did not give in to Nimrod’s demands, and he did not renounce G-d. The Torah does not go into this, for man’s destiny and his purpose in life is to obey G-d without seeking personal glory.
We also understand why the account of the Tower of Babel and that of Abraham’s trial are juxtaposed, for G-d created opposites. Some acted against G-d on the one hand, while on the other hand Abraham (who lived among them) did not act like them. A love for his fellowman and all creatures was his goal in life. He brought people closer to G-d and taught them how to serve Him. He accomplished this precisely by deeds that govern proper relations among men.
This behavior played such a role in Abraham’s life that when G-d told him to leave his land (Genesis 12:1), this constituted a great trial for him. He had no thoughts of leaving the inhabitants of that place, people whom he knew and to whom he taught the knowledge of G-d. He wanted to continue to instill them with righteous thoughts and good deeds.
The Sages ask why the generations were counted up to Abraham’s time. Their answer is that it is “to indicate how great is His patience, for all those generations repeatedly angered Him, until Abraham our father came and received the reward of them all” (Perkei Avoth 5:2). Why is this so? It is because he was perfect as much with respect to his relationship with G-d as with his relationship to others. However if we compare one generation to the other, the generation of the Tower of Babel appears preferable to that of the flood, for they were cordial and honest in their relationships with one another. Thus it is certain that “Peace is the best receptacle for blessings” (Sifri Nasso 6:26).