A Facebook friend recently posted the question, “Who do you consider great and why?”
This question is very timely as we transition from the Parsha of Noach to that of Lech Lecha. In Parshat Noach the Dor Haflaga, under the leadership of Nimrod, attempted to be great by building a name for themselves, yet failed. This is in contradistinction to the protagonist of Parshat Lech Lecha, Avraham Avinu, who became a great leader of many nations without intention.
How did this occur?
The generation of the tower of Bavel had sinned in the eyes of G-d because they built a tower of which they declared:
הָבָה | נִבְנֶה לָּנוּ עִיר וּמִגְדָּל וְרֹאשׁוֹ בַשָּׁמַיִם וְנַעֲשֶׂה לָּנוּ שֵׁם פֶּן נָפוּץ עַל פְּנֵי כָל הָאָרֶץ
Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make ourselves a name, lest we be scattered upon the face of the entire earth.
Commentators explain that their mistake was that they didn’t care about the individual only the collective. Nimrod positioned himself as the leader of the people. The Torah describes Nimrod as “a great hunter” with the words, “הוּא הָיָה גִּבֹּר צַיִד.”
The Torah uses similar language to describe Esav:
וַיֶּֽאֱהַ֥ב יִצְחָ֛ק אֶת־עֵשָׂ֖ו כִּי־צַ֣יִד בְּפִ֑יו
Rashi explains the terminology to mean that Esav was a manipulator with words.
Similarly, Nimrod was a fearsome warrior and positioned himself as a god of the people and manipulated them into fulfilling his goals of building a great nation under his complete dominion. He convinced them to make a “city for the people with its head (Nimrod) in the sky” where they could create a legacy so great that they would never be scattered or lost.
The plan did not work as G-d mixed up their language ultimately causing the people to be scattered across the Earth.
Avraham, who was alive at the time, rejected Nimrod’s attempts to create this society. Avraham knew that no human being could be a god and recognized the significance of each individual. He did not cower in fear of the mighty and powerful Nimrod and put himself in mortal danger while standing up for his beliefs. According to the Midrash, Nimrod threw Avraham into a furnace in order to obliterate any subversiveness to his rule. G-d miraculously saves Avraham and thus his journey begins.
Subsequently, the secret to greatness is revealed by G-d after introducing Avraham to us in the text. G-d’s first words to Avraham are:
ויֹּ֤אמֶר יְהֹוָה֙ אֶל־אַבְרָ֔ם לֶךְ־לְךָ֛
“Go to yourself”.
G-d commands Avraham to leave everything behind. He must depart from the land, the people, the philosophy he was born into, and actualize his potential. He must continue to blossom into the man who takes care of other men. The one who seeks out wayfarers to tend to, the one who takes in Lot for many years despite his evil ways, the one who pleads to save lives from destruction at Sodom and Amora. He wasn’t concerned with making a name for himself, but in preserving the names of others.
G-d chose us to be His people based on this concern for others. Only with this fundamental can we become a great nation that will endure forever. We don’t live on in perpetuity by creating societies that disregard the well-being of the individual for the sake of building “a great nation”. We witness this today as only remnants of ancient civilizations endure while the nations that built them have vanished. Our continuity is not found in the existence of monumental towers, but in a journey of the self which recognizes the importance of others . Greatness is achieved by a nation that is comprised of unique individuals who understand the value of every human being.