I’m sure many of you know the story of the Tower of Babel, at the very end of this week’s parasha, Noach. It depicts a group of settlers establishing a city and building a tower extending into the heavens in order “to make a name for themselves.” Displeased with the building project, God confuses the languages of the builders so that they can no longer communicate and then disperses them to all the lands of the earth.
This is what we might call an etiological folk tale, a story designed to explain some feature of the world as we know it, like, how the tiger got its stripes. In this case, our story responds to the question, Why do people speak different languages? Even more to the point, why is human civilization so fractured and fractious? Why can’t we all just get along?
The Rabbis pay special attention to a feature of the story that I wish to highlight for us tonight. The way in which the text describes God’s behavior particularly interests them. Rather than summarily scattering and confusing the builders from a heavenly perch, the text reports that God, using something like the “royal we,” says, Hava Nerdah, “Hey, let’s go down there” before taking action. Two verses later the story says, “So God went down to see the city and the tower that the people were building.”
Why on earth would God need to leave the heavens, to come down, in order to see what was going on in Babel? Does not the Omnipresent One know all, see all? This question fuels the Rabbinic imagination.
It was not the case, concludes the midrash, that God needed to go down in order to see what what going on so much as God wished to model for human beings the proper way to evaluate any situation. RaSHI says that God said Hava Nerdah, “Let’s go down there,” in order to teach us that anyone who would judge a situation cannot determine if it is really bad [or good] until actually seeing it and comprehending it in person.” If you want to understand, first see with your own eyes.
We are living in a time and place that has made it possible, indeed, so easy, to formulate opinions and make judgments at a remove, without first-hand knowledge. The digital age has made every media image unreliable: what looks like cereal glistening with droplets of milk and ripe red strawberries in an advertisement is really some unholy and unpalatable combination of corn syrup and heavy cream or even glue. You really want to know how things are? Hava Nerdah, the Torah says. You have to see things with your own eyes.
The 24/7 news cycle bombards us with media images of people and places we will never see with our own eyes, surrounds the images with “expert” commentary, and then gives anyone with an Internet connection free reign to bloviate at will. The “comment” pages of any online news article or op-ed have become a repository for the worst sort of bilious nonsense, a soapbox for the ignorant and petulant.
Not long ago, an Orthodox Jewish guest to WRT’s online Torah Study blog used our forum for disparaging remarks about Reform Judaism and Reform Jews. In the spirit of Hava Nerdah, of seeing it for oneself, our Torah study community responded with open and sincere invitations to come to WRT and experience firsthand a thriving, engaged Reform Jewish community. And this cuts both ways; too many Reform Jews have a mental image of what goes on in Orthodox synagogues informed not by eyewitness testimony but by a combination of imagination, invention, hearsay, and childhood recollections. To promote interdenominational harmony, we need a serious dose of Hava Nerdah, of going down and seeing with our own eyes before passing judgment.
What about our perceptions of Israel? One interesting exercise is to hand a classroom of Jewish teenagers some blank paper and markers and ask them first to draw “a typical American home.” Then draw “a typical Japanese home.” Finally we ask them to draw “a typical Israeli home.” The pictures speak volumes about this week’s Torah lesson. The “American homes” feature green lawns, colorful furniture, happy children, televisions, and dogs. “Japanese homes” come out in black-and-white with serious children. And the pictures of “Israeli homes” often feature barbed-wire fences, explosions, military aircraft, and anguished faces, with backdrops of sandy deserts and camels. It would make us laugh if it weren’t so sad. In December I will be leading a WRT Family Trip to Israel and I again invite you to fulfill the precept of Hava Nerdah, of seeing for yourself the beauty, the exuberance, the high-tech, ecologically diverse, complex multicultural tapestry of modern-day Israel. We have a few spots still available and anyone who is interested can ask me about it.
When I think of the far-reaching wisdom of this week’s teaching, I wonder aloud: How many Americans have actually been inside a mosque? To experience the ritual of respectfully removing one’s shoes and peacefully stepping inside an ornately inscribed prayer space, observing the ritual movement and chanted liturgies of a Muslim community in the act of prayer? The word “mosque” conjures, for millions of non-Muslims, images that do not comport with what one might actually see.
How many Americans who have never visited New York carry an image of our beloved city informed more by the smoldering ruins of 9/11 than by the city blocks of the Upper East Side, the shops of SoHo, and picnics in Central Park?
This is nothing new, of course. If you’ve ever looked at very old maps you’ve probably gawked at the inaccuracies and omissions, some earnest cartographer’s attempt to illustrate the world without being able to see it with his own eyes. An astonishing passage in Cormac McCarthy’s landmark book Blood Meridian speaks of “those whited regions on old maps where monsters do live and where the is nothing other of the known world save conjectural winds” (p. 152).
Medieval artists almost invariably portrayed the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden as a shiny, red apple even though the Bible never specifies the fruit. Sometimes art tells an even more provocative, even dangerous, version of events. Despite the portrayal of almost every Christian masterwork, Jesus was surely not Caucasian.
So it was with this week’s lesson in mind that I took the 6 train downtown this past Sunday, accompanied by my friend Michael Friedman, who was my first rabbinical intern at WRT and who now is a rabbi at Central Synagogue in Manhattan, to see with our own eyes what’s happening in Zuccotti Square near Wall Street. We went not in neckties but in jeans, and did not identify ourselves as rabbis. Using a small videocamera to record our experience, we approached some of the demonstrators who have occupied this public square since September 17th but whom we had only seen on the news day after day. Hava Nerdah, we said: Hey, let’s go down there and see for ourselves what this is all about.
Mike and I spent some time listening to some demonstrators speak about a number of causes including fracking (short for hydraulic fracturing, a process of using pressurized fluid to create a fracture in a rock layer to release petroleum or natural gas, which has come under fire for environmental and health concerns), student loan reduction, campaign finance reform, and unemployment. We also heard from opportunistic vendors and hangers-on, Hare Krishnas, Christian evangelicals, a synchronized drumming circle, and a sing-along to Madonna’s song “Material Girl.” Before departing we encountered an old-timey string band with an enthusiastic leader who taught us how to square dance. Upon departing, Mike and I turned to each other and in a unison voice that could only be described as ironic, said, “It’s Babel.” Babel, that place of confused speech.
I also spent some time this week applying the lesson of Hava Nerdah, of seeing things up close, by speaking one-on-one with members of New York’s financial community about their experience of the Movement. Fortunately we have a number in our congregational directory who were eager to share their perspective with me. One thoughtful respondent shared with me a sense of frustration in the Wall Street and business community about the way in which this Movement taints even well-intentioned people in the business world. “There is a sense,” he said, “that we share the frustration of a growing discrepancy between rich and poor in America. This, it seems to me, is fair game. But it is social-policy oriented, which has been misdirected at Wall Street instead of at Washington which sets the boundaries for what companies can and cannot do.” “I get it that we’re in a tough economy and that there is paralysis in Washington, D.C.,” he added. But the business community feels unjustly maligned that not only investment banking in its entirety, but capitalism in general, have come under fire.
Another respondent reminded me, “you could say that everything we see around us we built with our capital investment system.”
Still others shared their sense that the Movement’s original intentions have become distorted by hangers-on and hypocrites like the rappers Kanye West who joined the protesters wearing a suit estimated to cost $30,000 and Jay-Z who pulled up in his Bentley. And more than a few noted their exasperation with the protesters having become “media darlings” given the problems with their message.
More than once the Talmud resolves a dispute in a matter of Jewish law with the advice, “Puk Hazei Mai Amma Davar - go see what the people are doing” (Berachot 45a, Eiruvin 14b). When we really make the effort to see things up close, to ask the important questions on all sides of a public matter, the image we obtain gradually takes focus. Even more, a genuine conversation emerges. It becomes harder to talk past one another with black-and-white statements spoken from a position of ignorance or limited information.
You could say that seeing things up-close make our picture of the world three dimensional.
For me, the opportunity to apply the wisdom of Hava Nerdah, of going down and seeing things with my own eyes and hearing things with my own ears, is one I will cherish in my forthcoming role at WRT. As I see it my greatest immediate privilege and responsibility will be to see and hear you up close and personal, sharing the stories, beliefs, and values, that make WRT such a vibrant and beautiful expression of the multicolored tapestry of Reform Jewish life in America.