Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Parashat VaYera: Cities and Human Progress

Cities and Human Progress
A Message for Parashat VaYera 2016
Click here to view as PDF.

The city that does not look beyond itself to the truly transcendent realm cannot be a home for what is best in the human soul. (Leon Kass)[1]

Amidst the various stories of inspiration found in Parashat Vayera, Lot’s escape from the destruction of the cities Sedom and Amorah stands out as unique. Foiling the unwavering trust of his uncle Avraham, Lot needed to be forcibly led out of Sedom prior to its demolition. He then made a puzzling request of his angel rescuers:

And as they [the angels] were bringing them [Lot and his family] out, he said, “Flee for your life. Don’t look behind you, and don’t stop anywhere on the plain. Flee to the high country lest you be wiped out.” And Lot said to them, “Oh, no, my lord. Look, pray, your servant has found favor in your eyes, and you have shown such great kindness in what you have done for me in saving my life, but I cannot flee to the high country, lest evil overtake me and I die. Here, pray, this city is nearby to escape there and it is a small place. Let me flee there, for it is but a small place, and my life will be saved.” (Bereshit 19:17-20)

Requesting that an “undeserving” city be saved for his sake, Lot stressed that it was small in size and therefore entailed only a minor concession. But what was Lot’s intention? What danger did he foresee in taking refuge in the mountains, requesting instead an escape to a nearby city?

Let’s begin with a recounting of the history of cities in Sefer Bereshit

* * * *

It all began with Kayin’s murder of his brother Hevel and his subsequent banishment from Gan Eden:

And Kayin went out from God’s presence and dwelled in the land of Nod, east of Eden. And Kayin knew his wife and she conceived and bore Enokh. Then he became the builder of a city and called the name of the city, like his son’s name, Enokh. (4:16-17)

The Torah’s pesukim are equivocal regarding the exact nature of this advancement. They note, however, that his founding ushered in an era of human progress and creativity. Several generations later, Yuval became the first musician (4:21) and Tuval-Kayin forged tools of copper and iron (4:22). Considered narrowly, the text suggests that the identity of the founder of the original city as the first historical murderer was mere coincidence. This phenomenon, then, seemingly reveals little or nothing about the Torah’s general conception of human urbanization. Or does it?

The next significant mention of a city in the Torah comes at the Tower of Bavel episode:

And all the earth was one language, one set of words. And it happened as they journeyed from the east that they found a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to each other, “Come, let us bake bricks and burn them hard.” And the brick served them as stone, and the bitumen served them as mortar. And they said, “Come let us build us a city and a tower with its top in the heaven, that we may make us a name, lest we be scattered over all the earth.” (11:1-4)

God’s famous descent to foil the plan of these “builders” by confusing their languages is subsequently detailed in the text. Absent from the pesukim, however, is the actual intent of this building project and its theological significance. 

Corroborated by archaeological evidence, many scholars have noticed the narrative’s stress of construction by means of brick, and suggested that it refers to the ancient Mesopotamian towers, or ziggurat. These cities and towers represented one of the wonders of ancient technology, as did the creative transition in construction materials, from stone to brick.[2]

Though many commentators have suggested that this project was driven with the intent of idolatry worship,[3] the simple reading of the text never stated so, but instead quoted their mission statement as: “That we may make us a name, lest we be scattered over all the earth.” It consisted of two objectives: 1) To make a “name” for themselves and gain prominence through the city and structure, and 2) To prevent dispersion, and produce a centralized location for dwelling. Each of these objectives were conspicuously revisited and negated in God’s initial statement to Avraham: 

And God said to Avram, “Go forth from your land…to the land I will show you. And I will make you a great nation and I will bless you and make your name great…” (12:1-2)

Avraham was destined the life of nomad, with no city that he could ever call “home,” while that anticipated “great name” was now promised to him.

The negative portrayal of “city life” and its construction begins to take form, giving reason to suspect that the “murderer-founder” was no coincidence at all. But The City Story of Bereshit continues…

Sometime after their sojourn in Egypt, a quarrel arose between the shepherds of Avraham and Lot. Avraham suggested that they separate, urging his nephew to “choose his new home.” The pesukim describe Lot’s decision and internal workings:

And Lot raised his eyes and saw the whole plain of the Jordan, and saw that all of it was well-watered, before God’s destruction of Sedom and Emorah, like the garden of God, like the land of Egypt, till you come to Zoar. And Lot chose for himself the whole plain of the Jordan, and Lot journeyed eastward, and they parted from one another. Avram dwelled in the land of Canaan and Lot dwelled in the cities of the plain, and he set up his tent near Sedom. (13:10-12)

Lot chose the “cities of the plain,” near Sedom and Emorah, seeking the benefits of the fertile land. We may conjecture that these cities, much as the classic powerful cities of old (such as Egypt, which Lot referenced), utilized their adjacent river to produce an advanced irrigation system that would increase the expanse of fertile land.

The Torah’s association between cities and human progress thus continued, and its immediate critique comes as no surprise: “Now the people of Sedom were very evil offenders against God” (13:13). Avraham, on the other hand, is commanded to continue his journey as a nomad, and so he does: “And Abram took up his tent and came to dwell by Elonei Mamre, which are in Hevron” (13:18). 

The significance of Lot’s dialogue with the angels is now understood. The angels urged Lot to leave behind more than just the city of Sedom; they pushed him to abandon all life “in the cities.” And taken in its broader context, Lot’s subsequent characterization of life in the mountains as potentially “evil” is nothing short of ironic.

* * * *

Sefer Bereshit thus presents us with a glaring contrast. On the one side stand the “city builders and dwellers,” time and again associated with man’s creative advances in technology, and associated with Kayin, the rebellious builders in Bavel, Lot and “evil offenders against God.” On the other side stands Avraham, whose destiny is the “great name” of the city-builders, but whose life is that of a nomad, dwelling in tents and never fully settling in a particular city.[4]

What is so “evil” about urbanization and human development? Does the Torah in fact view the growth of civilization and human progress as negative?

The well-known Spanish philosopher and Torah commentator, R. Yitzhak Abarbanel, suggested that the Torah indeed looks down at human progress. He posited that Adam and Hava were purposefully placed in Gan Eden, where all of their essential needs were naturally supplied, and that their sin lay in “being drawn after luxuries that require work,” and independently “walking into the darkness” of their own self progress.[5] Enlightenment thinker, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, similarly regarded “natural man” as superior to “civilized man,” writing:

If I consider him, in a word, such as he must have issued from the hands of nature; I see an animal less strong than some and less active than others, but, upon the whole, the most advantageously organized of any; I see him satisfying the calls of hunger under the first oak, and the thirst at the first rivulet; I see him laying himself down to sleep at the foot of the same tree that afforded him his meal; and behold, this done, all his wants are completely supplied.[6]

Abarbanel accordingly explained the sin of the builders of the Tower of Bavel as representative of their inability to suffice with their naturally provided resources – and a life in the field, and a mission to establish a polity and develop cooperation and society – and a life in the city.[7]

Broadening our attention from Sefer Bereshit to the remaining books of the Torah and Tanakh and Jewish history in its totality, an entirely different image of “the city,” human progress and civilization, comes to light. Consider, for example, Bezalel’s creative and elaborate construction of the Mishkan and its utensils, the nation’s detailed contributions to the project, and the sanctity and prominence of the city of Jerusalem and the Bet Hamikdash. Indeed, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik praised modern man for his betterment of society through the advancement and utilization of technology in all realms, thus stating:

In doing all this, Adam the first is trying to carry out the mandate entrusted to him by his Maker, who at the dawn of the sixth mysterious day of creation, addressed Himself to man and summoned him to “fill the earth and subdue it.”[8]

Whereas Rabbi Soloveitchik detected a positive mandate for man to create and construct, and our history seemingly corroborates this position, Sefer Bereshit sends a consistently negative portrayal of these matters. Why?

* * * *

Leo Strauss once suggested that advancement in the realms of the polis, the arts and knowledge should be likened to the institution of human kingship in Israel. Fundamentally, these issues are “bad,” as they tend to divert man’s attention from God’s “great name” to man’s own “great name.” Considered from a practical standpoint, however, they are permitted – and perhaps necessary – for optimal worship of God.[9]

Strauss’s student and noted intellectual Leon Kass similarly observed:

The city affirms man’s effort to provide for his own safety and needs, strictly on his own. Standing up against the given world, it affirms man’s ability to control and master the given world, at least to some extent…Born in need, the human city, by meeting, and more than meeting the needs of its builders, proudly celebrates the power of human reason.[10]

Israeli scholar Yoram Hazony furthermore highlighted the Torah’s introduction to states and rulers, regarding Nimrod:

He was the first mighty man on earth. He was a mighty hunter before God … The start of his kingdom was Bavel and Erekh and Accad, all of them in the land of Shinar. From that land Ashur emerged, and he built Nineveh and Rehobot-Ir and Calah, and Resen, between Nineveh and Calah, which is the great city. (10:8-12)

Hazony suggested that the Torah’s description of Nimrod’s strength – his “might before God” – purposefully led into its account of the beginning of widespread construction of residential structures. City-building represented the acute danger of man’s mistaken self-empowerment in place of God.[11] 

Kayin’s construction of a city continued the mistaken self-empowerment that he had initially displayed with the murder of Hevel. Indeed, English philosopher Simon Critchley pointed to the Holocaust and other genocides of past generations as proof of the danger inherent in man’s advancement in scientific knowledge. He cautioned us to liken our pursuits in the field of science to those of art, and to realize that both fields are limited by our human capacity and fallibility. “When we think we have certainty, when we aspire to the knowledge of the gods,” Critchley wrote, “then Auschwitz can happen and can repeat itself.”[12]

* * * *

As Am Yisrael prepared to enter the Land of Israel at the end of their forty-year journey in the wilderness, they were charged with the mission of conquering the land and settling it. Moshe then warned them:

And it shall come about when Hashem your God brings you to the land that He swore to your fathers … great and goodly cities that you did not build and houses filled with all goods that you did not fill … Watch yourself, lest you forget God Who brought you out of the land of Egypt… (Devarim 6:10-12)

Lest you eat and be sated and build goodly houses and dwell in them … And your heart become haughty and you forget Hashem your God who brings you out of the land of Egypt… (10:12-14)

Settling Eress Yisrael marked the inevitable transition stage in the history of Am Yisrael from a nomadic lifestyle to one of city-dwelling. Am Yisrael was at this point prepared to overcome the challenges of this endeavor, but Moshe made sure to adequately remind them of the inherent dangers: “And your heart become haughty and you forget God…”

* * * *

Sefer Bereshit – the “Book of Beginnings” – sets the groundwork for man. It warns of the potential dangers that are present in human progress and reminds us of mankind’s past mistakes in the construction of cities. In so doing, it contrasts all such activities to Avraham’s life as a wanderer. Ultimately, however, the Torah urges us to cautiously step forward from our “beginnings,” and to use our God-given talents to build and create in our worship of Him.

Shabbat shalom!

Rabbi Avi Harari


[1] The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis (Chicago, IL, 2006), pg. 233. 

[2] See, e.g., Nahum Sarna, Understanding Genesis (New York, 1966), pg. 70-2. Perhaps worthy of further consideration in this context is the recurrent “stone” theme of Yaakov’s travels in Parashat VaYesse.; see 28:11, 18, 22; 29:2-3, 10; 31:45-6. 

[3] See, e.g., Rashi and Seforno, ad loc

[4] This schism between the urban and nomadic civilizations of that time has been similarly stressed by archaeologists, who have noted the repeated clashes between the two. See Martin Buber’s Moses (New York, NY, 1998), pg. 20-32, and R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s The Emergence of Ethical Man (Jersey City, NJ, 2005), pg. 151-3. 

[5] Abarbanel, Commentary to Bereshit 3. 

[6] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, On the Inequality Among Mankind, pt. 1. 

[7] Abarbanel, Commentary to Bereshit 11:1. 

[8] R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, The Lonely Man of Faith (New York, 2006), pg. 19. 

[10] Kass, pg. 227. 

[11] Yoram Hazony, “The Jewish Origins of the Western Disobedience Tradition,” Azure 3 (Summer 1998), pg. 30. See, as well, Hazony’s The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture (New York, 2012), pg. 109-10. 

[12] Simon Critchley, “The Dangers of Certainty: A Lesson from Auschwitz,” The New York Times, Feb. 2, 2014. Reprinted in eds. Peter Catapano and Simon Critchley, Modern Ethics in 77 Arguments (New York, NY, 2016), pg. 112-117.