Humble Audacity

Commentary on Parshat Noah, Genesis 6:9-11:32

After the great flood, all of humanity shared a single language and lived together in a valley from which they began to erect a tower toward heaven. Some have said that they wanted to see God; others, that they wanted to achieve immortality by building something grand that would outlast them. In either case, their sin was presumptuousness, overconfidence. They reached too far, whether in wanting to see what shouldn’t be seen, or by transcending their limits in a way that seemed brazen to God. So God dismantled the project by “Babel- ing” their language, and they could no longer cooperate.

The sin of audacity is particularly interesting in contrast with Noah’s sin of humility. Noah, too modest to recognize his power to challenge God’s decree, failed to rise in defense of his world. The two stories in this week’s parsha (Torah portion) amplify a tension between the need for an arrogant belief in our own righteousness, and that very arrogance as the source of human wickedness. The challenge is to find balance.

We learn from Noah’s deficiency that with power and access comes responsibility to speak up and to speak out in pursuit of justice, and planetary flourishing. We learn from Noah that fear of confrontation can hold us back from speaking the truths that save.

The balancing lesson we derive from the Babel story is that there is a point at which certainty in the importance of our projects or opinions can go too far. Our noble dedication is always at risk of becoming a cause in and of itself, an idolatry, if you will… In vanity we can lose sight of others, fail to hear with compassion, and lose our connection to the communities we wish help.

So, in this crucial moment in the history of North America, let’s rise to the task of being bold in taking authority, using our power to serve humanity in the most courageous and affective ways possible, while practicing the humility of collaborating with others, working transparently, and becoming ever more attentive listeners.

The Tower of Babel project suggests a warning sign we can attend to: when their community fell apart, people stopped understanding one another. Maybe our touchstone for keeping on track as we work to repair our world is to check for “babble” – to make sure we’re listening, to make sure we understand.

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