Genesis Building Towers to Knock Them Down
Parashat Noach (Genesis 6:9-11:32)
From the floor on which I sit stacking blocks one on top of the other, I have a clear view of our bookshelves. I can see the complete Talmud set that my spouse bought me as a wedding present, a collection of bell hooks’ works that I’ve only barely begun to dig into, sets of Midrash Rabbah and Netivot Shalom with beautiful bindings, and a stack of Octavia Butler. Out of the corner of my eye, I catch our almost-one-year-old coming towards me. She has that “I AM INFANT. I WILL KNOCK DOWN TOWER. DO NOT TRY TO STOP ME!” look in her eyes. I don’t stop her. The tower crashes down.
As she picks up a long blue rectangle to put in her mouth, I start my tower over. There is no doubt in my mind that Edie will knock this one down too, just as she did the last and likely will the next. This time, as my mind wanders, it hovers on the things I would do if only, if only, I wasn’t sitting on the floor building toddler towers. I would teach more Talmud. I would write teshuvot that addresses the intersection of trans-experience and Jewish religious expression. I would be a more accountable board chair. I would be a more effective organizer. I would be a more efficient philanthropist. I would . . . I would . . . BANG. Edie has knocked over my tower again!
Let us build a tower and make a name for ourselves, they say. If we do not, we will be scattered all over the world. (Genesis 11:4)
I hear the fear in the voices of the tower builders, a response to the possibility of being separated from each other and their land. I hear their ambition, the rationale that making a name for themselves will mean they get to stay or will have the power to make their own decisions. I imagine individuals, each with their own stories, attaching themselves to this project, a false idol built to hold the reality of living in a world with a history of trauma, specifically Gd’s flooding of the world, at bay.
We are living in a world that straddles a continuously-unfolding history of trauma and a striving toward equity, justice, and dignity for all of its inhabitants and the earth itself. This ongoing moment of pandemic, of uprising, of election uncertainty, of so much more hatred and oppression—I could never list it all—is shining a light on the deeply-flawed structures upon which our lives have come to depend, as well as on the possibility of new systems and new ways of being.
The ultimate Jewish expression of a world of new possibilities is olam haba, the world to come. It is the necessary conclusion to the trials of our Biblical ancestors whose stories of moving through famine, slavery, and lapses of faith—to name a few—form the backbone of our theology. It is the fulfillment of the covenant that Abraham makes with Gd and that Gd makes with all of Israel at Mt. Sinai. Olam haba, the world to come, is the vision that we are working towards, even as there is disagreement on how to get there.
Mishnah Sanhedrin 10:1 teaches that “all of Israel has a place in the world to come.” Let that soak in. All of Israel has a place in the world to come—all of us. [Bracket, for just a moment, harmful conversations about who is in the “us” and the challenge of chosenness.] Each person in our broad community has a place in a world of liberation. Considering the vast diversity in our community with regards to race, gender, ability, and ethnicity—this is no small thing. Considering the vast diversity with regards to how we would go about bringing this world into existence, how we believe we can achieve dignity for all, this statement is all the more impactful. But even within this same text, the rabbis begin to list those who don’t have a part in olam haba: the one who says that resurrection of the dead does not come from the Torah, the one who says that the Torah was not from the heavens, and the heretic. The list goes on. In Mishnah 3, we learn that the generation that was scattered as a result of building the Tower will not have a place in the olam haba, the world to come, either.
The world to come is both a vision of what we are striving for and a reality that we can live in. Rabbinic texts teach that each Shabbat is a taste of the world to come. Each policy victory, each community sing, each transfer of power to those who have been marginalized, each protected part of the earth—these are all tastes of olam haba, the world to come.
One way each of us can play a role in building olam haba is by working to dismantle the systems of oppression that our world is constructed on—racism, misogyny, antisemitism, capitalism. These systems of oppression are our collective towers, being built brick by brick, policy by policy, in an attempt to create stability where there is none. All of us are constricted by these systems and, therefore, all of us have the potential to experience liberation. To not have a place in the world to come, then, is to be closed off to the liberation that the dismantling of these systems and the creation of new ways of organizing ourselves will bring. It is to not have access to the healing and transformation that freedom can bring. It is to not participate in the communities of love and justice that will organize and vote and sing us along our road to olam haba.
Many of us are trying to live into our own personal world to come and building personal towers to get there. We are acutely feeling the big questions of life: Who am I? Why am I here? What is my role in this world? What will I do if the violence of the world begins or continues to impact my life more closely? We are afraid and unsure. In Crash Theory, Rabbi Benay Lappe asks us to consider the following questions that apply to our individual, communal, and global contexts: How do we respond when our master story is being challenged—when what we know to be true about life, about our life, is questioned at even the most basic level? Some of us will build walls and towers based on the foundations we have always known. Some of us will jump into a new story and live there until it crashes. Some of us will take what we have learned and create something new. We will knock down the towers that aren’t serving our vision of the world. We will build new towers and pray for the wisdom to know when we need to knock them down.
Rabbi Becky Silverstein`14 is the rabbi/founder of Beyn Kodesh l’Chol, and chair of the boards of SVARA and The Jewish Studio Project.
Learn about Hebrew College’s rabbinical and cantorial programs at our virtual Open House, Ta Sh’ma (Come & Hear) on November 16, 2020.