Dvar Torah, Noach 2010/5771

This is a d'var Torah, or sermon, which I gave 10/9/2010, at my synagogue, Congregation Netivot Shalom, Berkeley, California.

Shabbat shalom. This week we read parshat Noach, and the part I'm going to focus on is the episode of the Tower of Bavel, at the beginning of chapter 11 of Breishit, which is on page 58-60 in the Etz Chaim chumashim.

The summary of this story is that all humans spoke one language, until the generation after the flood ambitiously set themselves to building a city and a huge tower, whereupon G-d put a stop to the building by giving humans separate languages and dispersing us over the earth.

So I'm going to look with you at a few of the verses in this short and very rich story, and I'm going to tie it in to a very timely issue that's very near to my heart, the issue of young folks, particularly who are struggling with issues of gender, being bullied and having their lives devastated and sometimes lost because of it.

I'd like to give a shout-out to Reba Connell for helping with ideas in this drash. Also, before I start looking at the story I want to put in a word for the Israeli pluralism class that began this past Wednesday here at Netivot Shalom, Equal and Pluralistic - challenges and difficulties in Israel society, with Rabbi Avi Novis-Deutsch, Bay Area Masorti Visiting Scholar, which will address issues of gender and sexual orientation in Israeli society -- I hope to learn more there about the current situation for LGBTQ people in Israel.

So building this tower incurs severe punishment from G-d. Let's look at why.

It begins like this: "Vayomru ish el-re'ehu, hava nilb'nah l'venim v'nisr'fah lisrefah"
The anonymous builders said to each other, let's brick ourselves some bricks and really burn them with fire. In the doubling of the words for bricks and for the baking of the bricks -- "hava nilb'nah l'venim v'nisr'fah lisrefah" -- we see that the tangible construction is very important to them, perhaps too important.

"Vayomru hava nivna-lanu ir u'migdal v'rosho vashamayim v'na'aseh lanu shem pen-nafutz al-p'nei chol-ha'aretz."
And they said, let's build ourselves a city and a tower, with its top in the sky, and we'll make a name for ourselves so that we don't get scattered all over the world. I'll be returning to this in a moment, but we can already see how preoccupied they are with their relative status.

"Vayered Hashem lirot et-ha'ir v'et ha-migdal asher banu b'nei ha'adam."
And G-d figuratively came down to see the city and the tower that the children of Adam had built. When G-d investigates Sodom and Amora later on in Breishit, G-d is also said to "go down", 18:21 "erda-na v'ereh", I'll go down and look. Many commentators point out that G-d doesn't want to take action without personally investigating, but also we see that G-d stoops toward a human level in taking close interest in human actions and their results.

"Vayomer Hashem, hen am echad v'safa achat l'chulam, v'zeh hachilam la'asot, v'ata lo-yibatzer mehem kol asher yazmu la'asot."
And G-d said, they are one people with one language for everyone, and if this is how they've begun to act, then they won't be held back from anything they propose to do.
Rashi mentions that "yibatzer," as in being restrained, also occurs in Psalms 76, "yivtzor ruach n'gidim," G-d "curbs the spirit of princes." This word also occurs in Job chapter 42 verse 2, Job saying to G-d "yadati ki-chol tuchal, v'lo yibatzer mimcha m'zimah" -- I know that You can do everything, that nothing You propose is impossible for You. These linkages suggest how much the tower builders are trying to place themselves in a superior position over others, princely or even G-dlike.

G-d continues "Hava nerda v'nivlah sham sfatam asher lo yishm'u ish safat re'ehu."
Let's, or I'm going to, go down and mix up their speech, so that one of them won't listen to or understand the other's words.
Rashi points out the "mida k'neged mida," measure for measure, even in G-d's words here, "Hava nerda v'nivlah" echoing their phrasing "hava nilb'nah" and "hava nivna-lanu". G-d might even be mocking the builders and pointing out their arrogance.

"Vayafetz Hashem otam misham al-p'nei chol ha'aretz va'yachd'lu livnot ha'ir."
And Hashem scattered them from there over the whole world and they stopped building the city.

So why does Hashem need to stop this construction project? Perhaps because of the builders' self-importance. Some commentators impute even worse motives: I'm no Gemara scholar, but Tractate Sanhedrin suggests that the builders were trying to climb up and actually attack G-d: "They said, let us build a tower, ascend to heaven, and cleave it with axes, so that its waters might gush forth."
The midrash in Pirkei deRabi Eliezer as cited by Nechama Leibowitz suggests something more common but just as sinister: "If a man fell down and died [as they were building], they didn't pay any attention to him, but if one brick fell down, they would sit down and cry and say 'woe is us [oy lanu!], when can we get another brick up here to replace it?'"

The project of building became an end in itself, and the people involved were completely objectified as tools, less important even than the bricks they carried.

Also as we've already seen, the builders clearly have a preoccupation with, and a fatal insecurity about, their own importance. "hava nivnah-lanu ir", they say, let's build a city that's for us, a city that's all about us. They want to link themselves to Heaven, to have the rosh, the head, of their tower, be ba'shamayim, in the sky. And their own stated objective is, "na'aseh lanu shem" -- let's make a name for ourselves.

Hizkuni, a French contemporary of Rashi's in the 13th century, suggests that "Na'aseh lanu shem" has to do with conquering other peoples. It could also be because the tower would be the dominant feature of the skyline so other peoples navigated by it, or because they would be permanently safe from attack due to their impregnable tower.

In any case they are clearly driven by fear of being insignificant, and thus nameless, and being scattered over the earth. Which of course is exactly the unintended result of their attempts to forestall it.

It's illuminating for me that their invitation to each other to try to fend off their worst fear echoes the words of Pharoah later on in Shemot, Shemot 1:9, who will say about the Israelite people who are increasing in number, "Hava nit'chakma lo, pen yirbeh" -- Let's be crafty with them so that they don't increase.

Again, the Egyptians wouldn't end up sustaining such terrible losses in the plagues if they hadn't been working with such twisted fervor to protect themselves in the first place. Both Pharoah and the tower-builders are acting out of paranoid defensiveness, trying to raise themselves up by diminishing others and minimizing the humanness of others.

Which is exactly what happens in bullying. There's conflicting research about whether bullies are consciously aware of feeling insecure and small when they dominate others. But it's certainly true that their tactics are calculated to make the bully seem more than, and the bullied person less than. The bully builds a high tower of language and intimidation from which to look down on other people.

I want to note that when G-d stops the building, the verse says "v'yachd'lu livnot ha'ir." They stop building the city -- but they are never said to stop building the tower. As Hashem takes away the unity of language and mysteriously begins our diversity as human beings seemingly as a punishment (something I'm hard pressed to explain) the builders' panic about their own status leaves the realm of the concrete and continues in the realm of speech.

That tower is still being built every day in thoughtless speech, speech that seeks to dominate, to humiliate, to dehumanize, to make someone else other and to make someone else lesser.

Variations of ethnicity, of gender expression, of skin, of able-bodiedness, all the ways that we are different, these differences are never about being better or worse, just about being different. And yet even so many common words carry messages of denigration. Without meaning to, we can perpetuate in small ways the pattern of oppressing other people. I catch myself using the word "gyp," to cheat, without any conscious intention of insulting Romani people who are sometimes called Gypsies, and yet that's exactly what I'm doing when I say "gyp," just as surely as someone who uses the phrase "jew down" to mean "haggling to lower a price." And I am shocked sometimes at the gender messages that I hear passing my own lips, even as I define myself as a feminist who strives for freedom of gender expression -- saying something is "not for sissies," or using the words "wuss" or "wimp."

I'm certainly not intending to enforce narrow gender roles. And yet that is in a small way what I'm doing -- adding another brick to a tower of speech that hurts people. I want myself and all of us to be thoughtful about what we say, because those around us are always listening for the subtext of our speech. Children hear you when you start joking about setting up a shidduch between an infant girl and boy... they hear how you are making the assumption that those babies will grow up to be straight.

The issue of how we and others talk and behave about gender can literally be a matter of life or death. There's been a terrible, terrible number of stories in the press recently about young people in high school and college committing suicide because of bullying and harassment around gender.

I'm going to read the names of some of the young people who died most recently: Seth Walsh, 13 years old. Tyler Clementi, 18, a freshman at Rutgers University. Billy Lucas, 15 years old. Asher Brown, 13 years old.

And these are just names that are getting attention in the media at the moment. According to Jay Michaelson of the Jewish GLBT organization Nehirim, "Studies tell us that 42% of GLBT youth have suicidal thoughts, and that GLBT youth are nearly four times more likely to attempt suicide than straight ones."

The 2009 National School Climate Survey by the Gay, Straight and Lesbian Education Network found that nearly 9 out of 10 LGBTQ middle or high school students suffered physical or verbal harassment at their schools last year. http://www.glsen.org/cgi-bin/iowa/all/library/record/2624.html?state=research&type=research

There are places to turn. Here in Berkeley, the Pacific Center on Telegraph and Derby has peer groups for young folks. Dan Savage, the sex educator and writer, has begun a series of YouTube videos called "It Gets Better" to give young people a glimpse of how adult gay folks made it through their own youth. For those who are in crisis, the website The Trevor project, http://www.thetrevorproject.org/ , runs a free 24-hour helpline for LGBTQ and questioning youth who are in crisis, 866-4-U-TREVOR.

Here are two things everyone can do: October 20th has been designated as a national day of mourning and remembrance -- wear purple on Wednesday October 20th to show your support. http://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=122462384475928 And on the website for the Jewish inclusion organization Keshet, http://www.keshetonline.org/ , you can sign a pledge to end homophobic bullying and get more information about steps to take. This pledge has been sent out to Netivot Shalom's staff, board, committee chairs and to all current and former Amitim students, to show how seriously we as a community take the duty of making safety for everyone.

I want us all to be talking to the young people we know about these resources.
We can make it better for young people and for ourselves. I knew I'd be speaking to a room that was not exactly packed with young people, more's the pity, but I want to ask you to do something right now with me. I know our rabbi is a safe person for young people to talk to. I'm a safe person for young people to talk to (not just if they're in crisis, but because talking to young people is fun). If you are a safe person for young people to talk to, will you please raise your hand?

If you are willing to be thoughtful about what you say, and work on making yourself an even safer person to talk to, will you please raise your hand?

When the builders of the tower were seeking to elevate themselves by dominating others, G-d personally intervened. We need to do the same. Not another young life lost. Let's hold ourselves and each other accountable. With every time that we speak thoughtfully, that we catch ourselves and correct ourselves when we say the wrong thing, that we let other people hear us lovingly correct each other, we take another brick out of the Tower of Bavel.

Thank you, Shabbat shalom.

--Shifra Pride Raffel

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