TWO WRONGS DON'T MAKE A RIGHT
by Rabbi Alexander
Can one be a good person by observing only the "interpersonal" mitzvot without taking notice of their Author? Many people think so; in fact an entire philosophy known as ethical humanism is based on just this premise.
Can one be a good person by observing only the "interpersonal" mitzvot without taking notice of their Author? Many people think so; in fact an entire philosophy known as ethical humanism is based on just this premise. Within Judaism as well, we have the famous statement of Hillel, "Whatever you hate, do not do to your neighbor. This is the entire Torah, and the rest is commentary" (Talmud Tractate Shabbat 31a). This is often taken at face value to mean that the mitzvot "between man his fellow" are all that matter, and that the mitzvot "between man and G-d" are, at best, of secondary value. (Hillel's last words in that conversation - "Go out and learn the rest of the Torah" - are, unfortunately, generally ignored.)
What does authentic Torah thought have to say about this issue? We can gain a clue by comparing the two sets of ten generations described in this week's Torah portion: the generations preceding the flood, and the subsequent ones who built the Tower of Babel.
Before the flood, society had many faults; but the overarching one, for which Hashem finally sealed their doom, was robbery. Not just "ordinary" robbery, but chamas, which our sages define as the type of subtle and insidious crime that cannot be punished by a human court of law. In other words, the characteristic of that period was a total breakdown of the social order and of mutual respect for one another's property.
By contrast, the post-flood era was characterized by peaceful coexistence, where people were prepared to work together for a common goal (the tower itself could not have been built without such a cooperative spirit). The problem was that their society was an anti-religious society - symbolized by their tower, which was meant both to prevent the recurrence of what they considered the "natural causes" of the flood, and to serve as a staging ground for open warfare against Gd.
When Divine punishment befell each group, it fit their transgressions perfectly. The first ten generations, whose sins were primarily those of earthbound life and society, had their physical bodies and environment wiped off the face of the earth. However, according to one opinion cited in the Zohar, the 2nd century basic work of Kabbalah, their souls did retain their place in the World to Come. The reverse was true of the tower builders: they remained physically alive (though dispersed and unable to communicate), but lost their spiritual future.
The generation that built the Tower of Babel did deserve reward for their amicable way of life, but Gd could not give it to them because to do so, would only have served to strengthen their egotism. Instead, "Abraham came and took the reward of them all" (Ethics of Our Fathers 5:2), because he was the first to demonstrate how to take the friendly spirit of the tower builders and channel it to Gdly ends - by offering hospitality to strangers in order to introduce them to the concept of one Gd. In a certain effect, he made all those previous "wasted" generations worthwhile. Noah, on the other hand, withdrew into his own private world rather than confront the evils of his society and channel them into good. He, therefore, shares a portion of the blame for the flood that engulfed that society, and receives credit only for his personal righteousness.
Every one of us has the opportunity, and therefore the responsibility, to be an Abraham: to be a good and moral person, to demonstrate a social and cooperative spirit, and in keeping with that spirit, to try to give another Jew the greatest gift possible - the Torah, which is a Jew's very life.
As well, in our own lives there are times that we would rather not think about the occasions when we wasted our valuable, Divinely-granted time and resources, or worse, used them to oppose or ignore Gd's wishes. However, a Jew has the power to be an "Abraham" to that flawed past as well. By using the power of teshuvah (repentance) one can redeem those lost days, years, or decades and extract the kernel of good in them, turning them retroactively into days full of purpose, and subsequently "take the reward" of all of them.
This essay is adapted from an address by the Lubavitcher Rebbe of blessed memory.
Rabbi Alexander Heppenheimer writes from Atlanta.
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