Many of us see Avraham as the answer to Noah and his failure. However, there is a crucial development in humanity between Noach and Avraham, the Tower of Bavel.
Classically, there have been four major approaches to understanding the Tower story, as a polemic either against paganism, materialism, or authoritarianism/totalitarianism, which is currently very popular. Finally, some just read it etiologically, as explaining the resettlement of the world, the sin being they were meant to spread out but had not. While each of these have been connected to Avraham (the man at the margin who fights against the System whatever wrong it may embody), generally the explanations don’t fit the flow of the narrative very well.
I would like to suggest another approach. The Generation of the Dispersion expected time to be cyclical. Just as Noah thought he was the new Adam, they likely believed the flood would come again. The best reason to build a tower is to reach above the floodwaters, with its peak in the sky, and survive. But they don’t only build a tower but a city, a walled fortress in the Mesopotamian plain to hold the waters back, and crucially to make a name for themselves וְנַעֲשֶׂה לָּנוּ שֵׁם (Gen. 11:4).
Interestingly, the only city built previously had been the one Cain built for his son and in his name, Chanoch (Gen. 4:17). It appears founding a city is meant to ensure that one’s reputation and legacy endure. Only a city with a tower that was flood-proof could serve this purpose. Look at how all the heroes of great names (הַגִּבֹּרִ֛ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר מֵעוֹלָ֖ם אַנְשֵׁ֥י הַשֵּֽׁם Gen. 6:4) had been wiped out – no person can create a lasting legacy without some sort of protection from the flood*. The generation of the dispersion don’t only attempt to build the tower and the city – they also unite, act in one accord, and not as the previous generations before the Flood. They impose order and are willing to put off their short-term desires for long-term survival. Like Cain before them, they transform their fear and trauma into their new destiny, they attempt to learn a way to survive.
But, like Cain too, they make a fundamental and tragic mistake. Yes, unity is great. It is the eventual goal of God for the world and the Jewish people (Zephania 3:9 or the third bracha of the Rosh Hashana/Yom Kippur amida). However, they come together out of fear and specifically looking to preserve their legacy, despite God’s covenant. God promised that there are to be no more floods! But they simply don’t have enough faith.
Avraham is the way forward. It is only by being an active partner with God that survival, unity, and flourishing can come to be. For human unity to be meaningful, there first must be trust in the Creator in the Great Partnership of creation.
Avraham is not yet תמים (blameless), nor has he walked with God (Gen. 17:1) or even been accorded righteousness yet (Gen. 15:6), unlike Noah who is described as all three when we first encounter him (Gen. 6:9). Avraham has all that in potentia but first and foremost he is a man who in his first test puts his faith in God and one who takes covenants seriously. In fact, if the story is told chronologically, the first covenant he makes is not with God, but with Mamre the Amorite (Gen. 14:13)**. Critically, Avraham not only puts his faith in God’s promises and actively participates in covenants with Him, but he passes on this trust and willingness to his children.
וַיֹּ֤אמֶר אֱלֹהִים֙ אֶל־אַבְרָהָ֔ם וְאַתָּ֖ה אֶת־בְּרִיתִ֣י תִשְׁמֹ֑ר אַתָּ֛ה וְזַרְעֲךָ֥ אַֽחֲרֶ֖יךָ לְדֹרֹתָֽם׃
God further said to Abraham, “As for you, you and your offspring to come throughout the ages shall keep My covenant” (Gen. 17:9)
כִּ֣י יְדַעְתִּ֗יו לְמַעַן֩ אֲשֶׁ֨ר יְצַוֶּ֜ה אֶת־בָּנָ֤יו וְאֶת־בֵּיתוֹ֙ אַחֲרָ֔יו וְשָֽׁמְרוּ֙ דֶּ֣רֶךְ יְהוָ֔ה לַעֲשׂ֥וֹת צְדָקָ֖ה וּמִשְׁפָּ֑ט לְמַ֗עַן הָבִ֤יא יְהוָה֙ עַל־אַבְרָהָ֔ם אֵ֥ת אֲשֶׁר־דִּבֶּ֖ר עָלָֽיו׃
For I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the LORD by doing what is just and right, in order that the LORD may bring about for Abraham what He has promised him.” (Gen. 18:19)
At the very beginning of Lecha Lecha, God promises Abraham that this is the only way to make one’s name great וַאֲגַדְּלָ֖ה שְׁמֶ֑ךָ (Gen. 12:2) – this covenant which is to be the vision of Judaism throughout Tanakh. Not by building towers, but by trusting in God’s word. Only then through chesed, righteousness, and justice, and instilling all of these values in our children, as our legacy, can we walk with God. Ultimately, we are to unite around preserving our ‘name’ by glorifying God’s name, literally Kiddush HaShem, through our actions.
וְהָ֣יְתָה לִּ֗י לְשֵׁ֤ם שָׂשֹׂון֙ לִתְהִלָּ֣ה וּלְתִפְאֶ֔רֶת לְכֹ֖ל גֹּויֵ֣י הָאָ֑רֶץ
And she shall gain through Me a name, joy, fame, and glory for all the nations on earth. (Jer. 33:9)
כִּֽי־אָ֛ז אֶהְפֹּ֥ךְ אֶל־עַמִּ֖ים שָׂפָ֣ה בְרוּרָ֑ה לִקְרֹ֤א כֻלָּם֙ בְּשֵׁ֣ם יְהֹוָ֔ה לְעׇבְד֖וֹ שְׁכֶ֥ם אֶחָֽד׃
For then I will make the peoples pure of speech, so that they all invoke the LORD by name and serve Him with one accord (Zeph. 3:9)
*Ironically, the only name preserved with the memory of Bavel was that of the leader of the project, Nimrod.
* *On the importance of the covenant with Mamre to Avraham’s mission, check out Rabbi Alex Israel’s dvar Torah from this week.