Oy, our society is so divided. We are at each other’s throats, we have no patience for “others.” What will become of us? Unity – that’s what we need. Unity is what will save our society and make us strong!
The refrain is familiar. Back in 1974, the biggest hit on the classic satirical TV program Nikui Rosh (cleaning the head), was the National Unity Government song. (האיחוד הלאומי). If prices are too high, if the shower is dripping, if your son needs a kala, if your account is in the red, if enemies threaten from all sides, if the rain will not fall, if you have acne, if you got up with a headache – a National Unity Government will solve the problem!
The stories in today’s parsha and in the coming weeks, or listening to any news broadcast these days, may put a damper on unity as a panacea.
Let’s take the world as it existed in the time of Noah. We read that everyone (except Noah) was wicked, lawless. They were full of evil intent and evil acts. They were short on laws. Ironically, in two weeks’ time and several hundred years later we read the same description of Sodom. This week we also read about the Tower of Babel. There everyone spoke one language, and worked towards one goal – building a tower that would reach the heavens and, we assume, unseat God.
Three examples of unity of purpose and action, three examples of quintessential evil and the punishment such evil provoked in those days.
So what is so great about unity? It cuts down on disagreements and fights and threats. But wait, if you personally disagree with the unified idea, ideal and objective, do you have the right to speak your mind, to try to win people over to your way of thinking? Well, not always… In other words, it’s the intent that counts, and only unity.
These thoughts came to mind in another context, as I watched the movie “The Trial of the Chicago 7” this week. In 1968, at the time of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, seven troublemakers (in the government’s eyes) protesting the Vietnam War were arrested and subjected to a 5-month trial that was so biased against them that had the judge’s comments not been taken from the protocols of the trial, we would have accused the scriptwriters of gross exaggeration. The Justice Department, the police, the attorney general and to a great extent the press joined forces to paint the seven as a danger to society.
That’s unity, in a way. That’s what happens when the idea an individual or group wishes to promote is deemed unacceptable and is therefore quashed. Today they made a movie about it and we all say tsk tsk tsk. In Noah’s time and Lot’s time in Sodom, when society ganged up on everyone would not play along, divine justice intervened.
The justice meted out in Noah’s case was extreme: total annihilation of the world (or that part of the world the people knew about). However, Rabbi Michael Dolgin points out an interesting lesson we can learn from the event and its consequences. God tells Noah, after the flood, as a rainbow paints the sky, that never again will the entire earth be destroyed. The nature of man is bad, he says, why take it out on the rest of the world!
In other words, Dolgin says, God’s message was this. I punished you once. If you do it again… I won’t punish you. Which seems counterintuitive. The message, however, is deeper. It says: I cleaned up after you once. The next time you mess up, you’re on your own. It’s your responsibility. Que sera sera.
That’s a pretty scary thought. Today, socially, mindless hatred seems the norm. Politically, the world is tilting to the extremes. Environmentally, climate change (whether it exists or not) is paying us back for all the damage we humans have inflicted on nature in the past 200 years. Global warming, we are told, happens every billion years or so. We have increased the rate of warming beyond anything seen before. (We evidently are the greatest, after all!)
It is ironic that all this sin and lawlessness and damage to human, animal and environmental wellbeing comes so soon after Yom Kippur, the day we were supposed to have purged ourselves. Why do we have to start the new year with such degradation?
Hopefully because it leaves us with only one way to go – up. If we can use unity truly for the benefit of all parties, if we can recognize the inherent right of people, even those with different ideas, to live with dignity, if we can clean up how we treat nature, if-if-if – then we have a fighting chance of coming to our next Yom Kippur in better shape.