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עשה תורתך קבע – אמור מעט ועשה הרבה

This Week’s Word – הַתֵּבָה

Posted by rabbiart on October 30, 2008

This interpretation is inspired by a lecture given by Rabbi Akiva Tatz.  You can listen to the lecture – The Word, The Ark & The Tower yourself if you wish, and if you have about seventy five minutes to devote to it. I want to thank my good friend Chauncey Bell for turning me on to Rabbi Tatz.

Is our parshah simply a story of a man, a boat, and a flood?  Or does it have deeper significance? (You know the answer to that one!).  We start with the word usually translated as “ark” – תֵּבָה.  (teivah).    Teivah is also the word for the aron hakodesh in which we store the scrolls of the Torah. The Babylonian Talmud in speaking of the shaliach tzibur davening the Amidah, refers to him as going before the teivah. Teivah is also the word for “word.”  Finally, according to Rabbi Tatz, teivah can also be used to refer to the containers of the tefillin that hold the various parchments.  So in spite of its enormous size, there is more to the ark than meets the eye.

Noach is building a teivah. A teivah holds the Torah, or tefillin.  We pray in front of the teivah.  Teivah is also  “word”, particularly a word that has meaning and signficance.  How does HaShem create the world?  With words.

Now when we read that HaShem tells Noach to build a teivah, we begin to glimpse the deeper significance of the story. Add to what we have said so far the traditional teaching that the Torah is is HaShem’s blueprint for the creation of the world.  Noach is being invited to partner with HaShem in re-creating the world!  Talk about finding favor “in the eyes of the Lord”.(Breshit 6:8)  Or (Grateful Dead reference for Bob and Lori Jaffe) waking up to “find out that you are the eyes of the world”. (See full lyrics here and examine its relationship to the Parshah.)

Our word also figures mightily in the story of the Tower of Babel.  In Chapter 11 the whole world speaks one language and one speech. People have learned to make things.  Possessed of a technological impetus, they decide to build a tower to the heaven and make something, so they will not be scattered all over the earth.  What do they seek to make?  A Name. (As Rabbi Tatz likes to say in his lectures “you already see where I’m going here” (- except in this case, it’s where Rabbi Tatz goes in his lecture on this subject).

Who creates the world anew each day? HaShem -The Name! What is wrong with people seeking to build a tower and prevent dispersion?  Perhaps nothing.  What is wrong is to seek to usurp The Name with a Name.  Noach was invited to partner in creation with HaShem because Noach had found favor with HaShem.  These folks had not.

The Torah makes an interesting play on words, which comes out strongly when reading from the scroll itself, which is unvocalized. (stay with me here – another Tatz-ism).  In verse four the mob seeks to make for themselves a שֵׁם (sheim – name).  In verse seven HaShem responds by saying

הָבָה, נֵרְדָה, וְנָבְלָה שָׁם, שְׂפָתָם–אֲשֶׁר לֹא יִשְׁמְעוּ, אִישׁ שְׂפַת רֵעֵהוּ

“Therefore, I will descend and confuse there (שָׁם) their language, so they will not listen/here/understand each other’s language.” Does G-d punish the mob by confusing their language and scattering them?  That is certainly the pshat (simple meaning) of the text.  The deeper meaning is that the people of the mob are already confused.  They think they have a right to partner in doing the work of creation! But it’s not a right, its a privilege and an obligation, and only l’shem shamayim (for the sake of heaven), i.e. in alignment with HaShem’s plan and purposes, not – as the verse says – to get a name for themselves.

The story of the tower is a story of an almost good idea gone bad.  The mob wanted to make a great name, they simply chose the wrong name to make great.  They tried to add the glory of G-d’s name to theirs. They should have directed their efforts to adding to the glory of G-d’s name.  As we say in the Kaddish, to magnify and sanctify HaShem’s Great Name.

Shabbat Shalom


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