Celebrating the Spiritual Levels of Torah

Torah Portion for the week of October 19 - 25: Noach

(Genesis 6:9 - 11:32)

An ethical imperative

Contrary to the beliefs of biblical literalists, our planet and our universe is far older than the 6,000-year story of the Hebrew Bible. Not only did humanity exist many thousands of years previously, but some of the stories in the Bible had also been told before. This parashah contains two of them, the Great Flood and the Tower of Babel.

The story of a catastrophic flood flows through many ancient cultures, but the Hebrew Scriptures adds a significant twist. Where the more ancient Babylonian myth interprets the flood as a battle between warring deities, the Bible adds a significant moral dimension. The Bible sees the flood as the consequence of humankind's corruption. Human behavior impacts the entire cosmos.

The Bible speaks an ethical imperative that naturally springs from the awareness of One. Even without external rules, when we awaken to the reality that we are all expressions of a single Life, part of One Being, treating ourselves and others with kindness becomes an obvious imperative. The problem is our incredible inability to remain conscious of that One Presence we share. We forget our connections to each other when we lapse into our individual ego identities alone, since in those identities we seem so separate from one another.

The more separate we experience ourselves, the more defensive we become. The ego lives in the land of polarization, for the ego is fed by sensory data that always is comparative. We know cold because we know hot; we know hard because we know soft; we know sweet because we know bitter. Without those polarizations, sensory data would make no sense at all. This is our condition as individual physical beings on the planet.

Words are not enough

But we are focusing here on the second repurposed story in this parashah: The Tower of Babel. Documents that predate our Bible talk of ziggurats built in Mesopotamia, brick constructions with broad bases and narrowing layers that create steps from bottom to top. In those ancient times, gods were believed to dwell at the top of such towers.

As the story appears in Torah, the tower is constructed by a united community desiring to maintain their cohesiveness. They do not wish to be separated from each other: "...let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth." (11:4) But God does not find this pleasing, and determines to foil their plans.

Crucial to the revised story, God focuses on their common language, and not only decentralizes the community, but also multiplies their languages. Why would everyone speaking one language, and therefore able to understand each other, be problematic in the view of the One, even when that One is masquerading here as a very anthropomorphic god?

"And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech. (11:1)
And the Eternal One said, Behold, the people are one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do; and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have schemed to do. (11:6) Come, let us go down, and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another's speech." (11:7)

The biblical storytellers imagined that God was worried that the people, with one language, would threaten God's sovereignty. That seems unlikely, and doesn't really explain why languages were diversified.

We know that language is a function of the ego. Our personalities are linguistic constructions, complexities adhering to a single "name" that identifies us, through language, as separate and distinct persons. Perhaps even this ancient characterization of God intuited that words, by their very nature, describe separation. With words, we carve up our world into discrete chunks. With words, we separate ourselves from others. Even when speaking the same language, our words cannot help but serve this separating function.

But when we are confronted by a person whose language we do not understand, we are thrown into a different mode. We might expand our focus to include the energy we experience from that person, and we might use facial expressions and hand gestures to communicate. Without the reliance on words, we need to open ourselves to modes of understanding that our words normally eclipse. In fact, our words can help us pretend to feelings that we are not actually having. Certainly, we all been aware of times when the words we hear contradict the feelings we experience.

Lacking one common language, we human beings are encouraged to rely on more than words for our understanding of relationships. We need to open all our senses, and attend to the whispers of intuition, as well. We need to release ourselves from the confines of our words to expand our awareness of our greater commonality.

Words themselves are not the "things" they describe and define, they are pointers to that which is beyond them. Relying only on words inhibits our capacity to remember the interconnectedness of all Being. This is one of the reasons all spiritual traditions encourage us to meet silence. This is also the reason why all mystics teach that words alone cannot describe the true nature of reality. Our words can be wonderful, loving, and kind, but language alone can neither love nor sustain us.

Focus Phrases

I choose my words carefully, for they define me.
I honor the profound silence behind my words.
I am always One with all that is.

Writing Prompts

When I am feeling uncomfortable, I find I am telling myself that...
The words I would like to use describing myself include...
When I listen behind the words I hear from others, I realize...

“Torah is the book with no end, supporting our understanding of what it means to be a vehicle for the Spirit of Creation.”

Photo: Mark Reden