By Rabbi Yosef Goldberg
That which was will be again, and that which was done will be done again, for there is nothing new under the sun.
Ben Bag-Bag stated: “Turn through it (the Torah) and turn through it, for all is contained in it.”
—Pirkei Avos 5:22
One of the “contributions” of Islamic expansion into Spain was the introduction of the horrors of black slavery to medieval Europe. The Jewish Biblical commentator Avraham Ibn Ezra, who lived in post-Muslim, Christian Spain, mentions in his commentary on this parashah (Bereishis 9:25): “There are those who say that the blacks are slaves because of the curse with which Noach cursed Ham. However, they forget that the first [great] king who reigned after the flood was [Nimrod] from the sons of Kush [Ethiopia—considered the origin of the black peoples], as it is written (10:10), ‘And the beginning of his kingdom was Babylon.’” In other words, how could a people who were supposedly cursed produce the first great monarch in history?
Unfortunately, the misinterpretation that Ibn Ezra disproves was used even in the 19th-century American South to justify the unjustifiable.
Ibn Ezra earlier (9:24), as is common to his approach to Biblical commentary, departs from the aggadic interpretation of the parashah, which views Ham as the perpetrator of the defilement of Noach, and states that Canaan received the curse because he was the actual person responsible for the undefined defilement of Noach. He even proposes an arguable translation on verse 9:25: “And Noach awoke from his inebriation and he knew what his (Ham’s) youngest son did to him.” In any event, since Canaan received the curse, there never was any justification for black slavery in this Biblical narrative.
Later, Ibn Ezra (10:8) again departs from the traditional rabbinic approach to the character of Nimrod. The name Nimrod means “we will rebel.” Ibn Ezra states: “Do not seek meaning in all names unless the reason for the name is written. And he [Nimrod] began to show the domination of man over the wild animals, for he was a mighty hunter. The words in this scripture “before the L‑rd” means that he built altars, and would offer his hunted animals upon them as sacrifices to G‑d. This is the simple meaning of the Scripture, but the Midrash has a different approach.”
At this point, Ramban (Nachmanides), who often chides Ibn Ezra for abandoning the traditional approach, states the following concerning Ibn Ezra’s remarks : “And Rabbi Avraham explained the exact opposite of the matter, as is his wont in his commentary. . . . And his words do not appear to be correct. Rather, he turns an evil man into a righteous man.”
Ramban follows the classic rabbinic tradition regarding Nimrod, which does see significance in his name (“Let us rebel”). He follows Rashi, who quotes a series of midrashim: “He trapped the minds of mankind with his mouth, and enticed them to rebel against G‑d. . . . to anger G‑d directly. . . . Regarding any man who acts wickedly with arrogance, who knows his Creator and [still] intends to rebel against him, it will be said, he is ‘like Nimrod, a mighty trapper.’”
In rabbinic tradition, Nimrod is identified as the monarch who instigates the building of the Tower of Babel. And according to rabbinic tradition, attempts to kill Avraham Avinu, by throwing him into the fiery furnace of the Chaldees, from which Avraham miraculously survives unscathed. He is later referred to as Amraphel (a contraction of the Hebrew words “he said, ‘Fall (into the fiery furnace)!’” According to rabbinic tradition, Nimrod is murdered by Esav on the day that Avraham died.
I would like to focus here on the role of Nimrod in building the Tower of Babel, and to deal to a small degree with the question of what exactly the sin of that generation that built the Tower was. However, I would like to preface with a popular phrase: “The actions of the ancestors are a sign of what will transpire in future generations.” Ramban develops this concept in his comments on (12:10), where he shows that whatever happened to Avraham and Sarah in their descent to Egypt, their experiences there, and their leaving there with great wealth, would be a sign to their descendants of their future Exodus, suffering, and redemption from Egypt.
The episode of the Tower of Babel occurs ten generations after the Flood. Shem, the son of Noach, was still alive, and since all mankind were the descendants of the three sons of Noach, the awareness of the Flood was very much in their minds. The Flood had several effects on future generations.
First, life span was very much shortened. The Spanish commentator Don Yitzchak Abrabanel attributes this to the permission to eat meat that was given to Noach and his descendants. The Malbim attributes the diminution in life span to the change in climate that occurred during the Flood. The Malbim explains that the 23.5º axial tilt that causes seasonal changes in the Northern and Southern hemispheres first occurred at the time of the Flood. Previously, mankind had enjoyed a constant temperate climate. The shift to seasons had a deleterious effect on the life span of man. Then, of course, there was the general existential malaise that followed such a calamity as the Flood. Man was unsure of himself and of his continued existence.
Rav Zalman Sorotzkin, in his commentary Aznayim L’Torah, cites a variety of midrashim that explain the rationale for building the tower. Some of these midrashim saw the populace as still believing in a Creator, but one toward Whom they felt enmity and Whom they thought they could challenge. Others had lost all belief and felt that the flood was a natural catastrophe that would reoccur every 1,656 years. This group actually had a plan to build four towers with which to support the heavens so that another flood would not occur.
But at the center of all of this angst and misdirected energy was a charismatic king—a man who was such a dynamic and magnificent orator that he could hypnotize and ensnare people with his oratorical skills. Into this population, filled with a mankind looking for hope and concerned with the climatic changes that had occurred, stepped forth one who said: We shall rebel against G‑d. You no longer need to cling to your primitive religion. We shall solve all of our problems with the technology of the tower.
The Italian commentator Ovadiah Seforno sees a new dimension here. He sees the tower as being a new type of super idol, situated at great height in a massive city. And to this capitol building all mankind will turn for all their material needs. “And the intent in this was that the ruler of this city would be the absolute ruler over all mankind as all would turn to him to fulfill all their needs.”
Rabbeinu Nissim, in the very first derashah of his Derashos HaRan, discusses the nature of the sin of the generation of the Tower of Babel. The first man had been commanded to “fill the earth.” The generation of the Tower of Babel wanted to negate that command. “They agreed to build a tower that was as high as humanly possible. This tower would serve as the palace of their chosen monarch, who would be seen as the absolute ruler of the terrestrial regions. The sight of this awesome tower would fill all who saw it with fear and awe. And this tower would be seen from afar.” The tower would be a unifying symbol for all of mankind and would keep the human population monolithic and subservient to their earthly monarch. For after all, they believed that it is only government that keeps us together.
According to rabbinic tradition, there was a mortal enmity between Avraham Avinu and Nimrod. Avraham was the bold, innovative thinker who refused to be swept away by the false beliefs that surrounded him. He is called the Hebrew (Ivri) for it was as if the entire world stood on one ideological side and Avraham stood on the other. Avraham reintroduced into the world the concept of a benign and merciful Creator. It seems to me that today the struggles of Avraham Avinu have been passed down to his children, who still need to remind a world that has turned in search of hollow and elusive utopias that it has a Creator.
Rabbi Yosef Goldberg was formerly the rabbi of Young Israel of Wavecrest and Bayswater. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.