By Hazzan Ben Tisser
Last week we read perhaps one of the most widely recognized stories in the Torah – the story of Noah’s Ark. Once again (for the third recorded time) humanity goes awry. This time things got so bad that rather than punishing individuals, God decides to eradicate the whole of humanity, save one man, his family, and a pair of each type of creature on earth. Following the flood, humanity gets to start over. Immediately following this narrative, we read the story of Migdal Bavel–the Tower of Babel. As children we are all taught the story of people coming together to build a tower so tall it would reach Heaven. In these nine verses of Torah, we learn an invaluable lesson. When we come together for the wrong purposes, nothing good is served. From this we can understand that when humanity comes together for a positive purpose, great things are possible. The idea of Kavannah–intention–comes into play, and adds a new dimension to human possibility.
Following the Babel story we immediately read through a list of generations from Noah to Avram with no narrative of note. We are introduced to Avram, the son of Terach, and then God speaks to Avram saying, “Go forth [for you]…” It might seem strange, then, that the Babel narrative is inserted in this place, almost interrupting the narrative flow of the Torah from generation to generation, from one lead character to the next. But it has a very important place. Before Babel, humanity was one. And with that unity came great power, which ultimately was used for less than ideal purposes. The punishment for building the Tower was not ultimate destruction of humanity, for God promised never to do that again; the punishment was ultimately the separation of humankind into nations – each with its distinct language, culture, etc. This needed to happen before the generation of Avram, so that by the time Avram came to be there was a long history of nationality. Indeed there were 10 generations from Noah to Avram. Only once this transition to a world of nations occurred could God single out Avram for greatness.
I think there’s a powerful lesson here. We need to combine the power of coming together in numbers, which offers us endless potential as a world of people created in God’s image, with the humility and leadership shown by Avram. We need to define our individual Kavannah in order to create the most positive group outcome possible. Particularly in these unusual times it has often been very heartening to see people coming together to support one another in so many ways. I pray that, for however long this pandemic may last, and well beyond the end of it, we as individuals and as society are able to remember these lessons; to be mindful of our intentions; and to continue to come together (even if physically distanced) for the highest of purposes.