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The Timeless Lesson of the Flood: For the Individual and For the Community

By: Mrs. Aviva Slukis

In what is now a very catchy Jewish song, the famous Mishna in Pirkei Avot 1:14 states;
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He [Hillel] used to say: If I am not for myself, who is for me? But if I am for my own self [only], what am I? And if not now, when?

This profound statement can help shed light on two major incidents that take place in Parshat Noach. The Parsha begins with Noach and the Flood and ends with the building of the tower of Bavel. At first glance these appear to be two isolated events, but could there be a connection between them?

Let us try to understand the root problems in both situations. The Torah paints an abysmal picture of the generation of the Flood. “The world was corrupt before G-d, and the land was filled with violence. G-d saw the world and it was corrupt for all flesh had perverted its way on the earth.” (6:11-12) Rashi explains the term '' – violence, to mean robbery; stating that the generation’s fate was sealed on account of this robbery. Many mefarshim understand this to resemble a complete breakdown of social morality, every individual showing complete disregard for the other.

The Bavel scene on the other hand is described almost in opposite terminology. “The entire earth had one language and a common speech” (11:1) This sounds wonderfully peaceful in contrast to the generation of Noach! The people said, “Come, let us build us a city, and a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name for ourselves; or else we shall be scattered all over the world.” (11:4) Their sin is far from obvious; it appears all they wanted was to stay united and together. Clearly though, there was a big issue here as Hashem came and immediately scattered them as a group, confusing them by introducing multiple languages forcing them to stop working together.
Our question remains, is there a connection between them? Indeed Rabbi Jonathan Sacks creatively connects these two events together with a beautiful explanation; “The Flood tells us what happens to civilisation when individuals rule and there is no collective. Bavel tells us what happens when the collective rules and individuals are sacrificed to it.”

Using our above Mishna we can understand further; ‘If I am not for myself, who will be for me?’ This was the tower of Bavel, a forced unity, everyone had to be the same believing in the same values, fighting for the same values but leaving no room for the individual to flourish. ‘And if I am only for myself, what am I?’ The generation of the Flood, lived purely and selfishly for themselves, not caring if others were wronged or hurt in their struggle for success. Hashem is teaching us that they are two sides of the same coin. When every single individual fails to take a fellow man into account the world cannot survive like this and a Flood had to happen. When every single individual must conform to one goal whilst eradicating individual needs, the world cannot survive like this either and Hashem had to separate them so they could find themselves as individuals once more.
There is a fine balance involved in belonging to an exceptional nation with common values and goals whilst at the same time remaining a unique individual, aware of one’s own specific strengths and missions in this world. As we embark on this year together, Hashem should help us all bond and learn together as a group of wonderful students but thrive also as individuals, each one on their own specific journey of growth and Avodat Hashem.